Photo by Louis Freedberg/EdSource
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA, chairperson of the House Education and Labor Committee in the committee's hearing room in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill

On the first work day after the end of the partial government shutdown, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the newly empowered chairman of the committee with the most say over federal education policies in the House of Representatives, signaled a significant shift on Capitol Hill on a range of issues, from early education to higher education.

The House Education and Labor Committee, now in Democratic hands for the first time in eight years, had planned a number of hearings and other pronouncements over the past month, but those were delayed as result of the five-week shutdown. But now Scott and his Democratic colleagues are ready to shift direction.

The last time Democrats were in control of the committee was between 2009 and 2011, when Democrats were in the majority in the House of Representatives and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, was speaker. At that time, it was chaired by Bay Area Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, whose portrait hangs in the front of Room 2175 in the Rayburn Office Building. Miller retired from Congress in 2014.

Miller was a co-author of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, while Scott was a principal author of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced it after being approved by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2015.

Scott, now in his 25th year in Congress, was the first African-American to be elected from Virginia since Reconstruction and only the second African-American elected to Congress in his state’s history.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference organized by the Education Writers Association, Scott said that “the first order of business” of his committee would be to review how well states are implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. In particular, he worried about whether states are focused sufficiently in closing achievement gaps between higher- and lower-performing student groups.

“We gave a lot flexibility to localities, but we did not give any flexibility on the requirement that they ascertain achievement gaps, and then have a credible plan on how to do it,” he said.

A lot of the education plans submitted by states as required by the new federal law, he said, “were not nearly aggressive enough as we had expected.”

He said he wants to be assured that the high school diplomas students receive are “a quality credential.” “Whatever you have should be enough to get you into a state college without remediation,” he said.

Another goal would be to promote the Build America Act, a $100 billion initiative that would include funds for school construction and renovation, and that he said would create 1.9 million jobs.

He said he would also review the recommendations of Federal Commission on School Safety, which was co-chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It was set up by President Donald Trump after the Parkland, Florida school massacre. But instead of focusing on gun safety, it pushed for revocation of school discipline guidelines issued by the Obama administration. Those guidelines were intended to close disproportionate suspension rates of African-American and other students.

At the same time, Scott spoke in distinctly conciliatory tones.

He expressed little enthusiasm in calling DeVos to testify before the committee to explain her actions over the past two years, indicating that it is often more useful to have officials or staffers more directly involved in an issue to testify instead of the secretary.

He also seemed to go out of his way to say he was seeking bipartisan agreement on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, a major piece of unfinished business for Congress. It is the main federal legislation governing $150 billion in federal student aid and numerous other aspects of postsecondary education and has been awaiting reauthorization since 2013.

He said he would not push for passage of legislation in the House that would be unlikely to be approved in the Republican controlled Senate. “The purpose of legislation is to enact it,” he said.

Earlier in the day, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the equivalent education committee in the Senate, told reporters that he thought Congress could agree on reauthorizing the higher education law by December.

Scott expressed doubts about that timeline, indicating that no progress had been made on the issue over the past two years when Republicans controlled both chambers in Congress. He did not, however, rule out the possibility altogether.

“If we can get it done by the end of the year that would be a great accomplishment.”

He said he would push for an increase in Pell Grants, the main federal student grant program for low-income students. He lamented that “the grants used to cover 75 percent of tuition at a public college, now it doesn’t come anywhere close.”

Scott also took issue with those who question the value of a college education and whether its cost translates into sufficient economic gains for students.

He referred to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll showing that 58 percent of Republicans feel that colleges have a negative impact on the way things are going in the United States.

“If you just want to study history, philosophy, or anthropology, you are not going to get a job in that field right away,” Scott said. “There is in my view something transformational about a four-year on-campus liberal arts experience, much of which has nothing to do with what you learn in the classroom. You just come out four years later as a better person.”

The challenge, he said, is to make college affordable to all students. Going to a four-year college, he said, “should not be limited to those who can write $50,000 checks. I’d like to get back to where you could get any kind of higher education that you wanted, and you could afford it. That is going to take a lot of work.”

Regarding students who don’t attend college, he said there was bipartisan support for expanding apprenticeship programs, but that these should be broadened beyond traditional apprenticeships, such as those in the building trades, and should extend to fields such as finance.

As for for-profit colleges, Scott took issue with the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate controls over for-profit colleges imposed by the Obama administration, along with efforts to provide loan relief to students who were misled about the programs they enrolled in.

“If a student goes to a college and they are essentially defrauded, they shouldn’t have to repay those loans,” he said.

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