Lots of Bills, Few Laws
Now back in session for a few final weeks, the 113th Congress has been (in)famously unproductive, passing fewer bills into law than any other Congress. Ever. Notwithstanding this failure to sustain a legislative process, Members of Congress have introduced a large number of bills related to STEM education policy – about 35, by my count, providing insight into the many different ways that Congress looks at this area. These bills also invite a look at how the STEM education policy community works with Congress.
The STEM Education Policy Universe
As with any policy area, STEM education is the focus of a community of advocates. In their own organizations’ names and in coalition, these advocates work to make STEM issues visible and understandable for Members of Congress and their staffs. As a result, they hope, specific proposals effecting their desired changes would stand a better chance of getting enacted into law. Nuts-and-bolts lobbying, the primum mobile of governments (even) in (slow) motion.
Policy Priorities Visible in Bills
A central locus of this activity is the STEM Education Coalition, which propounds a full set of positions in the orbit of STEM education, including innovation and competitiveness, diversity, academic achievement, educational standards and assessment, teacher preparation and training, government STEM program activities, informal education, foreign worker visas, and more. The 35 or so STEM bills introduced so far in the 113th Congress reflect nearly all the coalition’s policy priorities, whether introduced by Democrats or Republicans. So by this measure, the coalition has been successful at getting its members’ interests written into bills and circulated for consideration.
The coalition’s roster of members suggests the types of organizations invested in STEM education policy: science and math teachers’ organizations, engineering and scientific societies, higher education groups, tech companies of many stripes, media enterprises, education non-profits, and others. Currently chairing the coalition is the National Science Teachers Association. The Executive Director is James Brown, a nuclear-engineer-turned-policy-advocate, and staff members from participating organizations administer activities.
There’s a Caucus for That
STEM education has its own caucus within Congress. One of almost 700 in Congress, the STEM Education Caucus has over 90 members. Co-chaired by Representatives Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Susan Davis (D-CA), Richard Hanna (R-NY), and Randy Hultgren (R-IL), the caucus is run by a steering committee of STEM education advocates who work with congressional staffers to manage communications, events, and information resources. As you would expect, there is a non-trivial degree of overlap between the people active in the STEM Education Coalition and STEM Education Caucus.
The Sources of Sausage
The culmination of coalition and caucus activities is actual legislation. In the House, the Education and the Workforce Committee has jurisdiction over most federal activities in STEM, while in the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee does. Most STEM bills are introduced in these committees, and those that get voted on and approved move onto the chamber’s floor for full votes.
The Flavors of Sausage
Bills fall into various categories. The biggest group, nine bills, proposes comprehensive measures to advance STEM education. They call for variations on a general approach – Department of Education grants for state and local education agencies to partner with institutions of higher education, businesses and non-profits, and/or other eligible groups on some or all of:
· Outreach to potential STEM students, especially if under-represented
· Teacher recruitment, preparation, and training
· Curriculum development and dissemination
· Academic and workforce training course development and delivery
· Research in approaches to teaching STEM disciplines
Some examples of this type of bill are HR 1089, the Stepping Up to STEM Act introduced by Representative Michael Honda (D-CA), and S 854, the STEM Education for the Global Economy Act of 2013 from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Given their predilection for activist government, Democrats favor this kind of bill, standing behind all nine of them currently under consideration.
Republicans show a preference for more targeted approaches, with visas being a particular favorite. Of the five bills calling for visas to be made available specifically to foreigners with advanced STEM degrees, four were introduced by Republicans. See, for example, HR 2131, the SKILLS Visa Act from Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA).
Other bills, introduced by both Democrats and Republicans, seek to do other kinds of work. Three call for explicitly recognizing computer science within the STEM constellation (HR 5031). Four seek to enhance STEM components of teacher training programs (HR 3142), and four more would increase diversity in STEM student populations (HR 4833). Five create financial incentives or funding sources for individuals to pursue STEM education opportunities (HR 1353).
A Side of Engineering, Please
Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have introduced the most engineering-specific bill, the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act (HR 2426/S 1178). This bill would:
· Integrate engineering design skills and practices into existing science standards in place for the 2016-17 school year
· Fund teacher professional development aimed at making engineering part of STEM classroom work
· Require the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education to conduct studies of K-12 engineering to identify best practices and promising innovations
A Small Window
For all this sound and fury in STEM policy, it’s not clear, as they say, what it signifies regarding prospects for any of these bills to become law. Only one – HR 5031 – has made it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. And you might remember an election is coming up soon. By early October, both the House and Senate will almost certainly seek to have wrapped up business for the year in favor of heading back to home districts for final campaign pushes. With appropriations wrangles still to work through, all of this does not leave much oxygen in the room for smaller-bore issues like STEM education policy.