Published Online: February 2, 2009
Published in Print: February 4, 2009, as Education Aid in Stimulus Raises Eyebrows

Education Aid in Stimulus Raises Eyebrows

Despite strong support, some warn flood of cash may inflate expectations

With the Senate set to take up the more-than-$800 billion economic-stimulus bill this week, lawmakers will grapple with whether some $120 billion in proposed education funding increases would set unreasonable expectations for future spending.

The bill—which closely parallels a measure approved 244-188 by the House of Representative last week, with no Republican support—includes money for education that would amount to nearly twice the discretionary budget of the federal Department of Education in fiscal 2008.

Both versions of the broader bill have attracted criticism from the GOP—and from some conservative Democrats—for spending billions of dollars on favorite Democratic causes such as education despite questions about whether the projects would really put people to work.

“American workers, families, and businesses desperately need an economic-stimulus package. Unfortunately, that’s not what congressional Democrats are offering,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in advance of the Jan. 28 House vote. “Instead, their package is nothing more than a mega-sized supplemental-spending bill that will saddle future generations with almost unimaginable debt.”

Tensions Evident

But Democratic members argued that the funding is needed to keep school districts from having to significantly scale back their operations and cut staff—steps that would have both immediate and future consequences, they said.

“All across America, there are school superintendents, there are boards of education, there are boards of finance that are grappling with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression,” Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, a member of the House education panel, said during the floor debate.

“If Congress fails to stabilize their budgets,” he added, “we will damage not only this country in the short term, but we will damage it in terms of our long-term ability to compete and thrive and grow as a nation.”

Similar tensions were on display earlier last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the $365 billion spending portion of the measure by a vote of 21-9. The broader measure also includes tax provisions, some of which would help districts finance school construction.

Some moderate Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, crossed over to vote with the Democrats.

But a number of GOPlawmakers argued that the bill would add to the federal deficit without providing immediate economic relief.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a deficit hawk and a former chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, contended that the bill wouldn’t do enough to quickly spur growth in the nation’s economy.

“My main concern with this bill is that so much of it is not structured around creating stimulus for the immediate future,” Sen. Gregg said. “Stimulus bills need to be targeted, and they need to be temporary. … [This bill] builds dramatically the baseline of the government, which I think is going to be a problem for President Obama” in the future.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, sought to allay those fears.

“Increases for programs as varied as food stamps, loan guarantees, and education, for example, are being made available with the clear understanding that the level of resources provided in this measure are to respond to this crisis and will not be sustained in the future,” he said.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, echoed that sentiment in a conference call with reporters the day of the House vote.

“The administration is telling us not to anticipate that this [increased amount] will be the baseline,” Rep. Miller said.

But Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, isn’t so sure it will be politically palatable for Congress to bring those programs back down to their current funding levels.

“It’s hard to cut a program 50 percent,” which is how the decision might be perceived, he said.

Increased Education Aid

When it comes to education, the two chambers’ versions of the stimulus package are more alike than they are different.

Both would provide an extra $13 billion to be spread over fiscal years 2009 and 2010 for students in special education and for Title I grants for disadvantaged students. The Title I program received about $13.9 billion in fiscal 2008, while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs special education, received $10.9 billion.

The Senate bill, however, would direct states to allocate at least 15 percent of their Title I money to early-childhood education.

Both measures would provide $39 billion in local and state aid to help schools and colleges avert staff layoffs and program cuts. They would also provide $15 billion for incentive grants—under the discretion of the U.S. secretary of education—for states and districts that boost student achievement. ("To Duncan, Incentives a Priority," this issue.)

An additional allotment of $25 billion in flexible state and local aid could be used for priorities such as public safety, but could also go to support schools and colleges.

The Senate measure would appropriate $2.1 billion for the Head Start preschool program for disadvantaged children and $2 billion for the child-care-development block grant.

The Senate bill also includes $16 billion to repair, renovate, and construct public schools to make them more energy-efficient and to expand their access to information technology. The House measure contains $14 billion.

The measures would take a somewhat different approach to financing school construction.

Both measures would appropriate $1 billion for educational technology, such as classroom computers.

In addition, the two versions of the stimulus plan would allocate $100 million for Teacher Quality Enhancement grants, which help foster partnerships between districts and teachers’ colleges to train new educators.

The House bill would also provide $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to districts to develop alternative pay programs for teachers. The Senate bill does not include new money for the TIF.

Among the House bill’s provisions are $250 million for state data systems and $25 million for charter school facilities. Those provisions were not included in the Senate version of the measure.

But, during the conference call, Rep. Miller said that the Obama administration had sought those provisions and believed that they would prevail in a House-Senate conference that will iron out differences between the two chambers’ stimulus bills.

“These are the priorities of President Obama,” Rep. Miller said. “I believe they’ll make it through, and I hope they’ll make it through.”

Vol. 28, Issue 20, Pages 17-19

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