The ED Angle on SCOTUS’ Obamacare Ruling

June 29, 2012 | By Guest Contributor | Post a Comment

(The following post ran in Thompson’s education blog, Title 1-derland.) The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act— one of its most important decisions of the past decade — has significant implications for education. The Act’s expansion of Medicaid asked the justices to decide whether Congress could, in effect, require a quid pro quo from states that receive federal dollars, a question with far-reaching implications for all kinds of federal grants, including those in education. Title I-Derland addressed the issue previously here and here.

Given the historic nature of the ruling, we asked several education experts to weigh in on the ruling today. Here’s what they had to say.

Julia Martin, legislative director for the Brustein & Manasevit law firm, and Leigh Manasevit, one of the firm’s founding partners and a successful litigator before the Supreme Court:

Today the 2010 Affordable Care Act was upheld, but it didn’t happen in the way many had thought it would.  A majority of the Supreme Court Justices agreed that the individual mandate was not an allowable exercise of Congress’ powers under the Constitution’s Commerce clause or the Necessary and Proper clause.  However, a majority of Justices also agreed that the mandate was allowable under Congress’s power to tax and spend money for the general welfare.  As a result, the central provisions were upheld.

While President Obama and Democrats in Congress will celebrate this decision as a political victory, it’s not all good news.  The court’s decision to uphold the mandate as a tax represents a political liability for this president.  It also represents an interesting take from the court on the Commerce Clause – the fact that the majority of justices believe that the mandate is not a proper exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause powers could have wide-ranging ramifications for Congress as they try to justify new social welfare laws and regulations, including those surrounding education.

On a separate question – whether requiring states to expand Medicaid eligibility is coercive – the court determined that the federal government cannot change the rules in the middle of the game, especially when that change is so substantial.  Instead, a state can now choose to expand its Medicaid program or not without risking federal funding entirely. The courts have long upheld the concept that federal education programs are entirely voluntary for the States. Though it is written to be narrowly applied, this decision has the potential (however small) to be read in future years to strictly limit the federal government’s power to amend or modify the terms of carrot-and-stick programs like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The one clear loser in today’s ruling: anyone who hoped the health care debate would go away after the Court made their decision to make room for other issues (like, perhaps, ESEA reauthorization).  The House of Representatives has already scheduled another vote on repeal of the health care law for July 11th.

Nancy Connor, director of federal programs for the Denver Public Schools.:

I was at leadership training last week. Among the attendees were several principals. All spoke with passion about the dreams they had of a bright future for their students and the reform efforts each was spearheading in their respective schools.  Two of the schools are turnaround schools with funding provided with the 1003g School Improvement Grants. One middle school principal glowingly praised the achievement gains arising from the Investing in Innovation grant my district and the University of Colorado are collaborating on. The Gear Up grant is paying for college readiness in other schools. All of the principals rely on Title I funds for interventions for their low performing students, and Title II funds to provide the professional development for their teachers to be effective.  All of these grants come to my district from the US Department of Education.  None of these programs would be possible in their absence.

State and local funds simply are not adequate to both fund the core program and all of this additional help for our students. We are beginning to see some impressive results. If the Supreme Court ruling today on the Medicaid expansions had meant that any federal education funding was limited to block grants for states to distribute at will, this fine focus of reform would have been be lost. Cash-strapped states would likely have used it just as most did with Ed Jobs funds…..backfilling cuts.  Poor and minority children everywhere would have lost.

My verdict: A huge sigh of relief.

Steve Peha, a veteran practitioner and writer on all aspects of federal education policy, is the founder and former president of Teaching of That Makes Sense, a North Carolina-based education consultancy:

Even though education is a well-defined state’s rights issue, the court has established that the federal government has a vital role to play in matters regarding equality of access, equality of funding, even to some extent equality of outcome via NCLB.

But if the mandate has survived, it seems the government’s chosen mechanism for enforcing it — through the threat of reduction in Medicaid funding to states —has not.

Of Justice Roberts’ opinion that, “What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” I would ask, what is the difference between taking away funding for Medicaid and taking away funding for education, as would have happened had any state opted out of NCLB?

When it comes to protecting quality of life for individuals, and the quality of society for all, it seems to me that there is little difference between affordable and universal access to healthcare and affordable and universal access to education.

Furthermore, while there may exist a technical difference between withdrawing federal funding for healthcare and withdrawing federal funding for education as a mechanism for incentivizing participation, I do not see the practical difference between the two.

Jennifer Cohen, senior policy analyst with the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

The Supreme Court’s decision leaves the student aid reform provisions in the Affordable Health Care Act, a win for those who supported the end of the guaranteed Federal Family Education Loan program. Additionally, because the Medicaid expansion was largely upheld, the decision has no direct bearing on the constitutionality of NCLB as it currently stands.

However, the court specifies that states that opt not to participate in the expansion must still receive their current allocation of Medicaid funds before the expansion. This could have some implications for ESEA reauthorization if Congress chooses to put additional provisions into the law that states deem too onerous. For example, Congress has discussed a teacher evaluation requirement as part of the reauthorization. Theoretically, the court’s decision opens the door for some states to refuse that new aspect of the law and any funds attached to it, while still being eligible for existing Title I funds. In other words, it could potentially allow for states to participate in the law in a piecemeal fashion.

Richard Long, executive director of the National Title I Association:

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act is constitutional will have a profound effect on the nation’s vulnerable populations.  Children need access to an effective education and health care system, something that they haven’t had.  Educators have long known that there is a link between education, health and development.  In areas of high poverty the rate of child survival increases with the literacy rate of the parents.  We have known that children without access to health care systems frequently come to school in need of the most basic of services.  Now some of that will change, but a new burden will be put on the states to offer more and needed services at a time when resources are limited.  I hope that the nation decides now to focus on how to make this new policy work and not to continue an argument that has been settled.

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