Carrying Out the Commission's Ideas

August 17, 2006

That was fast.

Moving with surprising speed, the U.S. Education Department plans to announce Friday that it will hold a series of regional meetings with college officials and others this fall to discuss how it might use the federal rule making process to carry out some of recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

A department spokeswoman said that its officials would have no comment until a notice about the plan appears in the Federal Register, which is expected Friday. As a result, details are sketchy.

But several people who said they had been told about the plan said that the department plans meetings in Chicago, Florida (possibly Orlando), and California, beginning in September, at which it will consider how the federal government's "negotiated rule making" process might be used to institute some of the commission's proposals through federal regulation (as opposed to requiring legislation enacted by Congress).

According to the sources, the meetings will also discuss whether the negotiated rule making process should be utilized to help put in place the federal government's two new grant programs, the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the SMART Grant, and other changes in federal financial-aid programs enacted as part of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act in February. The department has already issued interim final regulations to carry out the new grant programs and other HERA changes, and college officials had previously been told that no formal rule making process was planned. So some said they were surprised by the apparent change of heart.

But probably more striking is the fact that the department seems to be moving so aggressively to consider enacting some elements of the U.S. commission's work. The panel voted overwhelmingly to approve a draft of the report just last week, and it does not plan to get a final draft to Secretary Margaret Spellings until the middle of September.

Many observers of the commission's work to date have wondered how strongly Spellings and other department officials will get behind the panel's agenda, especially with an election looming. (Since some college officials aren't real thrilled with the commission's push for greater accountability -- including calls for streamlining the federal financial aid programs, more disclosure of colleges' performance on a number of fronts, and the creation of a federal database of students' academic records -- they have been hoping the department might move slowly, or not at all.)

Those who were familiar with the department's plans said the call for hearings should not necessarily be read as a sign that its officials were sure that they wanted to act on the commission's recommendations. One described the department's approach as "investigatory," with the idea of proceeding with regulation "if it's seen as appropriate."

Others speculated that department officials might be exploring their regulatory options so aggressively because they worry that the fall's elections may put Congress into the hands of Democrats unlikely to look favorably at the ideas of a Republican-appointed commission, or at least weaken President Bush and his administration?

That tea-leave reading aside, one thing seems relatively clear: The department's quick move to schedule the discussions -- and to plan for actual negotiated rule making beginning in December -- sends at least a preliminary signal that Spellings does not plan to let the report collect dust on a shelf in her office.



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