News from Washington 03-23

Hispanic Community March 2023 PREMIUM
The new Congress is focused on increasing oversight in the education sector since US community colleges have been losing students in the last years. Meanwhile, the question of who should be allowed to vote in local elections, particularly in college towns, is being considered.

Why Are Community Colleges Losing Students?

The impact of the pandemic shutdown on U.S. colleges is just now beginning to be studied and analyzed. Of course, application numbers plunged in 2020 due to total campus lockdowns and were low in 2021 due to remote learning at barely discounted tuitions. But FY 2022-23 has seen two-year college enrolments across the nation only lose 4 percent enrollment, according to the National Student Clearing House Research Center. The gains were driven completely by the recovery of dual-enrolled high school students. But there are trends that may keep community college enrollment low in the next decade,” writes Tara Zirkel. “Those include students choosing online universities and alternate learning pathways such as YouTube – where now approximately one-quarter of college students are currently enrolled in courses to receive a license (25%) or to receive a verified certificate (22%). Zirkel also points out that “Community colleges have been especially hard hit by the Great Resignation, showing a 13% staff decline from 2020-2022. By 2028, six million less working aged adults will be in the workforce, causing more competition for talent across all sectors, not just higher education”. 

But off the record, one senior education analyst, who has studied both California state and community college institutions for decades, says there are new systematic changes that have affected the composition of college students among the various levels of institutions. “One of the biggest factors in decreasing community college enrollment is that SAT or AP scores and other meritocracy markers are no longer required to apply. They acted as a basic academic sorting factor for academic institutions for decades. Now anyone can apply anywhere and are not limited by qualifying scores and the ability to prepare for the exams – for better or worse,” said the California analyst. The consequence however is that many new 4-year college students often need remedial classes that don’t count towards a degree. While tuition for the first years of college is covered by government programs to help 4-year degree institutions meet their diversity goals, some students can become discouraged after several semesters of remedial courses. They leave. Colleges rarely try to trace retention rates of students that started with them but leave after a year or two.”                  

In Between Weeks of Breaks, the New 118th Congress “Populates” its Education Committees

Although the first weeks of a new Congress are filled with breaks for party caucuses, home breaks and federal holidays such as President’s day that usually last a week each, there is one important thing that the new Congress must do by mid-February: assign its elected members to committees and sub-committees (to “populate them” in Congressional speak). When a chamber changes majorities, as the House did in 2022, that also means that each of the partisan staff for each House committee and sub-committee must switch offices. The majority party gets the bigger office with room for more staff and more witnesses allowed for the hearings that they get to organize. They also often change the focus of the committee.

Education has been one of Congress’ standing committees since 1867 -- right after the Civil War when it became part of the Labor committee (as was immigration). Higher education became a sub-committee in the House and remains part of the whole Education and Work Force Committee in the Senate. Committee chairmen get to set the agenda. In 2020-22, under Democrats, the focus for the Higher Education and the Workforce Committee was increasingly on diversity, equity and inclusion. But Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the new Chairperson for the House committee, announced that the focus in the 118th Congress will be on oversight: including on COVID-19 relief funds, child nutrition, accountability and investigations on federal student loan programs, and Title IX implementation. Foxx announced that she will not allow any remote hearings or mark-up of bills for her committee, with few exceptions, saying: “In-person hearings allow for the best debate and deliberation and it is easier to maintain decorum and orderly procedures.” She also renamed the subcommittee on higher education. Under the just departing Democratic leader Frederica S Wilson (D-FL), it was called the “Higher Education and the Workforce and Investment Sub-Committee.” Current SubCom Chair Burgess Owens (R-UT) changed the name to “The Higher Education and Workforce Training Sub-Committee.”

Membership of the committees changes from Congress to Congress; only a few representatives stay on one for a long time. In this new 118th Congress, only three Hispanics will be members of the Higher Education subcommittee: Representatives Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR), Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) and Raul Grijalva. Anyone interested in education policy usually tries to become well acquainted with all the committee members on the appropriate subcommittees – from both parties. It can be useful to find out where they and their families attended college, their particular interests in education and their ambitions. Congressional members tend to be around longer than Education Department appointees as well.

Who Gets to Vote in Local Elections? A College-town Issue Now Comes to Congress

The question of who should be allowed to vote in local elections – for a mayor or a school board member, for instance -- has long been a matter of familiar dispute in college towns throughout America. As more and more American kids go out-of-state to college and are awakening to political activism, they want to vote locally. Many argue they spend more time in their college town than their hometown; they and their families spend a lot of money there, and often work and live in these towns. “They should have the ability to elect local leaders who make decisions about their bodies, their businesses, and their tax dollars,” said a local voting rights activist in Washington DC in November.   

But he wasn’t talking about American college students. He was talking about allowing non-citizens – from permanent residency green card holders to those illegally in the country and even diplomats who have immunity from U.S. laws – to vote in local elections if they are at least 18 years old and had resided in the District for 30 days or more. This is the new law that the DC City Council passed in the last election, despite  the concerns and objections of many citizens, the mayor (who didn’t sign it), and even the liberal Washington Post. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. So amazingly, the issue of non-citizens voting in local elections has become one of the first controversies faced by the new 118th Congress of the US. On February 9, Congress voted to pass a resolution of disapproval, with a stunning 42 Democrats voting with Republicans. Now it seems possible that Democrats in Senate may do the same, allowing the U.S. Congress to rescind DC’s law.

Why can Congress do this? It’s an extremely rare situation, but since it’s in the news, in Congress, and undoubtedly could affect many Hispanic immigrants in the District, a short explanation is due: It’s in the constitution. The District is not a state and even though granted home rule in the 1970s, the Rules Committee of the U.S. Congress reserves the right to review any laws the District government passes. If a joint resolution of disapproval is passed by a simple majority in Congress about any DC law, Congress can nullify it.  

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