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House Chairman Aims to Renew Law on 'STEM' Education

Step aside health-care reform. A key committee in Congress is gearing up this year to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act.

The law has a heavy emphasis on bolstering education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, collectively known as the "STEM" fields. The House Science and Technology Committee got started with its first hearing on the matter yesterday.

Judging by the widely bipartisan vote on the law when it was first passed in 2007 and signed by President Bush, the new legislation may well prove welcome relief from the intense partisanship dominating so much of Washington these days.

A day before the Jan. 20 hearing, the panel's chairman, Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, made clear that action on the bill would be a high priority. In fact, he aims to have the full House vote on the measure before the Memorial Day recess.

"The America COMPETES Act is critical to our nation's long-term economic competitiveness," Rep. Gordon said in a press release. "This legislation is a key priority for the committee."

The law technically expires in 2010, though Mr. Gordon may well have another reason for getting it done this year. It'll be his last chance to shape the measure, as he recently announced plans not to seek re-election.

Yesterday's hearing took testimony from leaders in the business community, including the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"The America COMPETES Act of 2007 laid the foundation for a revitalization of a national STEM agenda," said the chamber's president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue, in prepared remarks. "In conjunction with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the COMPETES Act addresses the concern about public investments in STEM education, workforce development, and research."

An Education Week story from 2007 offers some background on the law. It was dubbed the America COMPETES Act in reference to what members of Congress believed was its potential to strengthen the quality of the U.S. workforce and gird the economy against foreign competition. The law established several new federal math and science programs and expanded existing ones.

In his opening statement at the hearing, Chairman Gordon noted that the law authorized $33.6 billion over fiscal years 2008-10 for STEM education programs across the federal government. (As someone who used to cover the federal budget, I would caution, however, that one should NEVER confuse an authorization level with how much Congress actually decides to spend.)

"It also authorized multiple grant programs to help educate current and future teachers in the areas of science and math education, as well as invested in support for young researchers by expanding early-career grant programs," he said.

Stay tuned for more blogging on this legislation. One key question is the extent to which President Obama, who has been emphasizing STEM education lately, will want to put his imprint on the measure, and what ideas he might put forward.

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