By Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.)
The last place we need the federal government is in our classrooms. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that President Obama’s Department of Education is intent on imposing its will on our institutions of learning, whether K-12 or higher education. Like many 9th-district residents, I believe education is a state and local issue. The federal government can play a supporting role in education, but the issue is best left to state and local officials.
For months, I have been challenging the U.S. Department of Education’s lack of understanding when it comes to the impact of a costly federal accounting requirement on Missouri career and technical schools when applying for Title IV funds. This federal regulation, which conflicts with existing state standards, has been in place since 1997. The regulation requires postsecondary education institutions to submit annual financial statements to the U.S. Department of Education prepared on an accrual basis.
For years, the U.S. Department of Education has allowed Missouri career centers to continue to operate under its current reporting system – cash accounting – because Missouri allows school districts to adopt any comprehensive basis of accounting. Missouri is unique from many states in that many of its career centers are part of local school districts. There are at least 32 vocational technical schools in Missouri that currently participate in the Title IV programs and are affiliated with local school districts. Over 90 percent of Missouri schools, regularly subjected to audits, use cash accounting. For most schools, many of which are rural, changing an entire school district’s accounting system for one affiliated career center necessitates an expense that many school districts simply cannot afford. This means career center programs will close down.
Unfortunately, the administration is not taking into account the vast differences in school districts throughout the country and even of states and their financial reporting requirements for their school districts. I believe we need to be providing states and school districts more flexibility in using systems that have worked for them locally, not severely limiting career centers’ ability to apply for federal funds by mandating that they take on a whole new accounting system. In a recent letter signed by every member of the Missouri delegation to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I requested that the U.S. Department of Education provide a waiver from requiring Missouri’s career centers to comply with the regulation when applying for Title IV funds.
While this is a critical issue for these schools, the U.S. Department of Education has been slow to respond and has offered confusing instructions regarding career centers’ attempt to receive a waiver from this costly accounting requirement. While a short-term extension was eventually granted, it is still not known how long the extension is in place for, nor was the extension a complete fix in the form of a waiver. Officials at career centers in Missouri have told me that they were given only 10 days to sign an agreement stating that they would convert their entire accounting system over to a new system, even though the state of Missouri permits school districts to use the existing cash accounting system in question.
Simply put, I am frustrated by the varying information, short deadlines and lack of awareness about how this regulation impacts job creation in the state. In a follow-up letter to Duncan, I made it clear that at a time when schools are strapped for cash, it makes no sense to saddle schools with more uncertainty. Moreover, at a time of historic unemployment, the U.S. Department of Education should be working to help people obtain new training, not making it more difficult for Missourians who rely on career centers for skill development, job searching and career resources. Our discussions on these issues are ongoing.
Meantime, I became aware of the adverse effects of federal intervention into historically state and academic issues created by another set of U.S. Department of Education regulations defining an academic credit hour. In an effort to combat these regulations, I support the Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act, legislation that will repeal the creation of a federal definition of a credit hour and prohibit the department from defining credit hour in the future. It is completely unacceptable to have the federal government defining credit hours because it places the government in the middle of the academic decision-making process and ultimately results in fewer choices for students by restricting colleges and universities in their academic programming.
The federal government continues to impose regulations that are harmful to our nation, and regulations that seek to hinder higher education strike at the heart of our ability to educate the next generation. Please know I will continue to battle this “one-size-fits-all” approach pushed by Washington, which is both troubling for our current students and potentially disastrous for future generations of students.