- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

Education policy is in for some changes under the new Democrat-controlled Congress.

Cracking down on the student-loan industry, cutting loan interest rates, boosting the amount of government money for education and rewriting portions of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law governing elementary education are among the goals of Democrats next year.

On top of that, a few other laws must be renewed, too — the Higher Education Act, the Head Start program for preschoolers and the Workforce Investment Act for job-training programs.

“It’s a big year,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican who will hand over the gavel of the House Education Committee to Rep. George Miller, California Democrat.

In the Senate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will set education policy as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Massachusetts Democrat said recently he aims for an “important increase” in education dollars. Despite a “tight budget” environment, he said, voters in November sent a clear message that they not only want change in Iraq but also a greater emphasis placed on domestic issues.

“It seems to me the American people spoke very clearly,” he said.

One of the first orders of business for Democrats will be to cut the interest rate for federally guaranteed student loans in half — a goal House Democratic leaders said the House will tackle in its first 100 hours of operation next year.

Mr. Kennedy may include the rate-cut proposal in a broader bill that would forgive student loans after 25 years, increase the Pell Grant maximum award to $5,100 and cap federal student-loan payments at 15 percent of the borrower’s monthly discretionary income.

The price tag for all of this is still in flux, but estimates for the rate-cut proposal alone could reach $50 billion, depending on whose loans are targeted for cuts, a Democratic aide said.

Mr. Kennedy recently said student loans “work well for banks but not for students.”

Another priority — especially for President Bush — is renewing the No Child Left Behind Law of 2002, which is due to expire. Democrats helped approve the law, which requires states to hold failing elementary schools accountable and bring all students to reading and math proficiency, but they’ve complained that schools are struggling to comply because Congress and Mr. Bush have provided about $40 billion less than the funding levels set out in the law.

Democrats will push for more money, though Mr. Kennedy said he knows he may not close the funding gap right away. Meanwhile, both sides of the aisle are working on tweaks and changes the law may need in areas such as how teachers are measured and promoted and the way troubled schools are handled. Republican aides predicted NCLB renewal could be relatively smooth.

Mr. Kennedy, who stood next to Mr. Bush at the bill-signing ceremony in 2002, said recently he remains willing to work with the president if he is committed.

“Given the many failures of implementation by his administration and the meager commitments to education reforms in his budgets, the president has a high hurdle to cross to demonstrate that he is seriously committed to these reforms,” he said.

Republican leaders said Democrats’ promise of big bucks for education doesn’t jibe with their loud pledges of fiscal reform.

“If they stick with what they said they want to do, they’re going to be spending a significant amount, and I would think they’d have trouble finding those dollars,” said outgoing Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican. “It’s going to be an interesting exercise for them.”

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