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U.S. House (Finally) Passes STEM Education Bill

After a couple of false starts in recent weeks amid partisan wrangling, the U.S. House of Representatives today approved a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, legislation that contains a strong focus on improving education in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The final vote was 262 to 150, with 17 Republicans joining most, but not all, Democrats in favor. Some Republicans have complained that the price tag for the legislation—all told, some $86 billion over five years—is too high, but Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said the measure is essential to the nation's future.

"If we are to reverse the trend of the last 20 years, where our country's technology edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today," Gordon, a key proponent of the bill, said in a prepared statement. "The path is simple. Research and education lead to innovation. Innovation leads to economic development and good paying jobs and the revenue to pay for more research."

Among the bill's GOP critics was Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the science committee.

"I am disappointed that my Democratic colleagues resorted to using a procedural tactic to defeat Republican changes that would have saved over $40 billion and restored the original COMPETES priority of basic research," he said in a statement today. "While I am glad we were finally able to reauthorize many of the important research and education program in this bill, the bill that passed today spends too much money, authorizes duplicative programs, and shifts focus away from the bill's original intent."

Despite the GOP criticism, the bill was backed by a wide range of organizations (some 750, by the count of science committee Democrats), from the National Science Teachers Association to the American Chemical Society to major universities, the Business Roundtable, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The legislation reauthorizes a number of programs that support STEM education, including the $55 million Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which encourages talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers.

I haven't had a chance to review details of the final bill, but as it was approved by the science committee, it contained language to reduce the Noyce program's cost-sharing requirement for colleges and universities so that a more diverse group of institutions could afford to participate.

However, I'm told that, oddly enough, the bill is silent on the Mathematics and Science Partnership Program, which was part of the original America COMPETES Act and is run by the National Science Foundation. (I'm afraid I'll need more time to sort out why that is, but stay tuned!)

The bill contains a new measure designed to ensure better coordination of STEM education activities across federal agencies, language modeled on another House bill, HR 1709, which was approved last year on a bipartisan basis. Another provision would require the White House to create an advisory committee on STEM education responsible for soliciting input from a variety of stakeholder groups, with the goal of offering guidance to the president on how to better align federal programs with the needs of states and school districts.

Still another measure calls on the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Education to collaborate in identifying "grand challenges" in STEM education research and then determining what role each federal agency should play.

"This section of COMPETES instructs these agencies to solicit input from a variety of stakeholders in STEM education, those who know best the needs of the STEM community," Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said in a statement she issued earlier this month about that particular provision. "This will ensure that the research performed is relevant and useful."

As I indicated earlier, the bill has been the subject of some unusual back and forth in recent weeks, including a procedural maneuver by Republicans that led Democrats, who hold a majority in the House, to delay a final vote. For more on what's been going on, including a thorny "motion to recommit" dealing in part with the touchy subject of federal employees viewing pornography on the "company" dime, see this recent blog item.

I'm no expert on House procedures, but as I understand it, House Democrats today figured out their own procedural maneuver to deal with some of the problems caused by the Republicans' "motion to recommit." The MTR basically led many Democrats to vote in favor of some measures to substantially rewrite the America COMPETES legislation that they really did not support. By breaking that motion into a number of separate pieces, Democrats today were able to strip out the provisions they found objectionable.

"As I've said before, this bill is too important to let fall by the wayside," Rep. Gordon said. "Today, we took the action necessary to see consideration of this bill completed. And we allowed the members of the House to be on record voting on provisions gutting funding for our science agencies, voting on whether we should eliminate programs that will help create jobs, voting on whether to eliminate programs that will make us more energy independent, voting in opposition to federal employees watching pornography, and voting on whether universities that ban military recruiters should receive federal research dollars. We have provided all members, in a reasonable manner, with the ability to vote on each of these items separately instead of all together."

For his part, Rep. Hall criticized the "procedural tactic" Democrats employed, and said: "Given the current state of our national economy and the fact that our nation's budget deficit has increased 50 percent since the last authorization (of the America COMPETES Act) three years ago, we must be mindful of our spending if America is to continue to compete globally."

For more background on the America COMPETES Act, check out this recent Education Week story. Oh, and in case you're dying to know, COMPETES stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science.

The next step for the reauthorization effort is for the Senate to develop and approve its own version, which some analysts have suggested may prove difficult this year for a variety of reasons, including a very busy agenda in that chamber and the especially intense partisanship of an election year.

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