December 19, 2007
In this issue:
After many weeks of struggling to complete the FY08 budget process, Congress appears to be headed towards the finish line for this year. On Monday, the House approved a $517-billion omnibus appropriations bill, covering every executive branch agency except Defense. Anxious to secure President Bush's signature on the massive bill and leave town, Democratic leaders surrendered on various policy fronts as well as overall funding totals. To stave off cuts in numerous programs, Democrats had to resort to across-the-board cuts to their bills of as much as 1.74 percent. However, Democratic leaders did extract some pain from the President, by significantly reducing his budget priorities in a number of programs such as Head Start, cancer research, pandemic flu preparedness, special education, and by blocking a proposed pilot program to allow Mexican trucks to travel widely inside the United States.
Last night the Senate amended the Omnibus Appropriations bill to add $70 billion in Iraq funding with no strings. So, today the House will vote on the Iraq funding portion of the Omni. If passed, the bill will go to the President’s desk. If all of these items are completed today, it’s expected that Congress will adjourn for the year.
Some items of interest in the Omnibus:
Grant programs dipped below previous levels. The omnibus bill restores nearly $900-million in funds for three programs designed to help needy students: Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, and the Leveraging Education Assistance Programs, all of which the president had proposed eliminating. Under the compromise bill, the supplemental-grants program would get $13.5-million less than in the 2007 fiscal year, while Perkins Loans and LEAP would get roughly $1.1-million less. Spending on TRIO and Gear Up programs, which prepare low-income students for college, would be frozen at fiscal 2007 levels.
The maximum Pell Grant, which is now $4,310, would be trimmed to $4,241, although the actual award would rise to $4,731 once funds from a student-aid bill enacted in September are included. That measure provided enough money for a $490 increase to the maximum contained in the new spending bill for 2008. The omnibus provides a modest increase ($555 million) for the Pell Grant program compared to FY07, but is less than both the House-passed and Senate-passed bills. The modest increase means a cut in the Pell Grant maximum award by $69, bringing the maximum to $4,241 (less than the FY07 level of $4,310). However, because the College Cost Reduction Act provided a mandatory increase of $490, the maximum Pell Grant would increase to $4,731 in FY08.
Health professions received a $15.57M increase over FY07. While COEs, HCOPS and Title VIII nursing programs received small increases, the AHEC program received a decrease.
The National Institutes of Health will get $28.94 billion, an increase of only 0.4 percent over the previous year. The NIH will see its budget for FY08 shrink by almost $1-billion from levels of financial support agreed to by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in compromise legislation passed by both chambers this year. This will be the fourth straight year that the agency's budget has failed to keep pace with inflation.
The omnibus bill funds NSF at about $6 billion, an increase of about $149 million, or 2.5 percent, over FY07 but $364 million less than the President’s request. (This is $444 million less than in the House bill and $488 million less than the Senate bill.) The omnibus funds the DOE Office of Science at $4 billion, which is $221 million, or 5.8 percent, above FY07 funding but $380 million below the President’s request.
The bill also contains a provision prohibiting the Department of Education from issuing regulations on accreditation until after Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act. (See related story below.)
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Today, the House will take up a SCHIP/Medicare package under suspension. This bill includes a 6-month physician payment fix and an 18-month extension of SCHIP. This bill passed by unanimous consent in the Senate last night. The Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP Extension Act of 2007 replaces the scheduled 10.1% cut to the Medicare physician reimbursement rate in 2008 with a 0.5% increase through June 30, 2008, and it extends the physician quality reporting system. In addition, the bill provides adequate funding to States for the purpose of maintaining their current enrollment through that date.
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And finally, this report from the National Journal:
Spellings Urges Transparency In Higher Ed Accreditation
Education Secretary Spellings Tuesday called for more transparency and accountability in what she labeled the "veiled and confusing" process for accrediting colleges and universities.
In a speech before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, created by Congress in 1992, Spellings said schools and accrediting organizations had to do more to satisfy the public's desire for information on what colleges and universities have to offer and how they are performing.
"If you have ever doubt about the need or the appetitive for your mission, consider the U.S. News and World Report rankings," Spellings said. "It's been called the swimsuit edition of post-secondary education reporting. Within 72 hours of its publication, the U.S. News Web site is viewed 10 million times."
She urged the committee to "reinforce" efforts by schools to publish student achievement data now not widely available, such as graduation rates of "non-traditional students" and low-income students.
"Accreditation remains one of the least publicized parts of higher education, even compared to our Byzantine and bewildering financial aid system," she said.
Members of the committee agreed that schools should provide more consumer information to parents and students.
James Towey, the president of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, said many college administrators felt "frustrated" by the popularity of the U.S. News' annual rankings because they were based to a large extent on a survey of college officials asking them to rate each others' schools.
"It's a fool's errand," said Towey. But another member of the committee noted that introducing more openness into the accreditation system would be easier said than done.
"Everybody agrees with transparency in the abstract," Patrick Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said in an interview. "It's when you get into how this would play out as a practical matter that the arguments begin."
Spellings acknowledged that achieving transparency would be a "difficult task," but said that it had to be at least attempted because in "this information age, consumers want to know, 'how will this college serve my aspiration? And at what cost?'" She said that "to do nothing is not an option."
The secretary added that the release of more public information on student achievement was also needed to help put out "the raging fire" of U.S. higher education, which she explained was the ongoing failure of many minority students to earn college degrees. By Terry Kivlan
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