The chances of Congress achieving higher education reform this year just got slimmer as the top Republican in the Senate on education issues said he sees no path forward.
On Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education panel, told a New York Times education conference that this year his committee will not produce legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965, a federal law that governs almost every aspect of the sector.
“The Democrats won’t do it,” Alexander said. “We had given to the Democrats four months ago — after four years of hearings, our complete proposal about what to do and haven’t gotten a response. They want to wait until next year to see if they’re in better shape politically.”
That strategy, Alexander said, could backfire if the Republicans take the same stance.
“I keep telling them, ‘Look. I can take notes and do to you what you do to me, even if I’m in the minority,’ ” he said.
Alexander had promised to produce a bill by March, but it became clear in committee hearings that Republicans and Democrats were too far apart to reach consensus on ambitious changes. GOP senators want to overhaul the federal student aid system and ease restrictions on the types of programs receiving those funds to spur innovation in higher education. Democrats have agreed that the federal aid system needs revamping, but not if it means restricting access to students or sacrificing consumer protections.
An aide to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate education panel, said she is taking the same approach to reaching a bipartisan agreement on higher education reform as she did to reforming K-12 education. Murray and Alexander worked together in 2015 to dismantle the controversial No Child Left Behind law that required schools to show academic progress through standardized tests or reckon with penalties.
“When Senator Murray and Chairman Alexander negotiated their fix to No Child Left Behind, she encouraged him to set aside his initial partisan draft and work with her in a bipartisan way to draft a bill. He agreed, and when the bill was signed into law he credited that approach with getting a result,” said Mairead Lynn, a spokeswoman for Murray. “Senator Murray is taking this same approach here and has been engaging in conversations about how to make progress together, not simply exchange partisan drafts and call it a day.”
Lynn said Murray isn’t throwing in the towel just yet. She said the Democratic senator wants to address the cost of college, increase access to underrepresented students, hold schools accountable for student success and ensure that every student is safe and free from discrimination on campus.
“She’s at the table and ready to keep working,” Lynn said. “Hopefully, Republican leaders haven’t added this to the list of other bipartisan work they have given up on for the year.”
The impasse in the Senate signals the difficulties House Republicans will face in advancing their own reform bill. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee, successfully passed the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform Act out of committee in December, but the bill has yet to get a floor vote.
“It should come as no surprise that Chairwoman Foxx is working diligently with members to deliver true reforms to higher education and bring the PROSPER Act to the floor as soon as possible for a vote,” said Michael Woeste, a House Education Committee spokesman.
People familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said that Foxx has held recent meetings with party leadership to get the bill on their radar and may get a vote by mid-June. Still, with Republicans holding a one-seat majority in the Senate, the conservative House legislation may be dead on arrival.
The bill would eliminate some popular student-aid programs, and impose restrictions on others, while dialing back regulations on for-profit colleges — much to the chagrin of Democrats. The Congressional Budget Office said college students would lose $15 billion in federal student aid over the next decade if House Republicans succeed in turning their higher education bill into law.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged her support for the GOP bill at a recent House hearing, but her office said she will not wait for Congress to reach a consensus on reforms.
“As long as Democrats continue to be unwilling to engage in productive bipartisan discussions around common sense solutions, the Department must move forward with the law that we have,” Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an email. “Students don’t have time to wait, and they, along with schools and taxpayers deserve certainty and relief from the regulatory overreach by the previous administration.”
Earlier this month, DeVos released a spring 2018 regulatory agenda affirming her intentions to rewrite Obama-era rules designed to curb abuses in the for-profit college sector and regulations governing campus sexual assault. The Education Department also plans to convene a panel to ease restrictions on how religious universities access and use federal funding. Though religious colleges are among the top recipients of federal student aid, the federal government bars funding for work-study jobs involving religious institutions, for instance.