Published Online: December 22, 2010

Temporary Budget Deal Freezes K-12 Spending

Funding for K-12 programs will remain frozen at current levels for more than two months under legislation approved by Congress late yesterday, leaving it to the new more-fiscally conservative Congress that takes office next month to set final spending levels for fiscal 2011.

The bill extends funding for almost all federal programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, at fiscal 2010 levels until March 4. Advocates are already bracing for a potentially protracted budget battle when lawmakers finish the job of writing the spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which began back on Oct. 1.

By the time the measure expires, the now-Democratic House of Representatives will have changed to Republican control and the GOP will have larger numbers in the Senate—the party gained six seats in that chamber in the 2010 midterm election.

House Republican leaders have pledged to restore federal spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, although they haven’t been specific about which programs they would like to scale back. Senate Republicans and some Democrats also have pledged to take a tougher fiscal line.

The short-term extension is “the worst option for education,” said Joel Packer, a principal at the Washington-based Raben Group, which represents the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition.

Mr. Packer, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the National Education Association, is expecting a grim fiscal fight come January. He said an unfinished fiscal 2011 budget makes it harder for districts to plan for the future, and he held out little hope for increases once the new Congress in place.

“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “I think we’ll be negotiating between a significant cut and a freeze. … I would be hopeful that President Obama actually draws some firm lines in the sand and says if they send me a bill that cuts education [and other priorities] below [certain] levels, I will veto.”

Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, last week pulled from consideration a $1.1 trillion budget bill that would have funded all federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, through September 2011.

Republican leaders said the measure contained too many earmarks, even though many of the members making that claim had requested their own pet projects. Republicans also objected to the process by which Democrats put the bill together, including funding the entire government with one large bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a speech on the floor of the Senate

“Members on this side of the aisle increasingly felt concerned about the way we do business,” he said Dec. 16. “Let’s come back here after the holidays with a renewed desire to do our business in a timely fashion and avoid this kind of thing in the future.”

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate committees that oversee education spending and policy, said in an email, “In the same week that congressional Republicans fought for billions in tax breaks for the wealthiest in the nation, they fought against additional funding for programs that provide working families access to affordable and high-quality child care and early-learning programs.” Increases for both programs were included in the Senate bill.

The legislation also includes language on highly qualified teachers that would essentially reverse an October court ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.

The court found that the Bush administration’s 2002 regulation on “highly qualified” teachers improperly broadened the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act because it allowed alternative-route teachers to circumvent the definition.

The law requires teachers to hold full certification in order to be considered highly qualified, while the regulations issued by the Bush administration permit teachers in alternative routes to be considered highly qualified under the law, even without certification, if they are making progress in their programs. Fans of high-profile alternative-certification programs, such as Teach For America, were dismayed by the appeals court ruling.

Sympathetic Ear

Earlier in the budget process, education advocates and the Obama administration had seemed to have gain traction among lawmakers.

For example, the omnibus measure would have provided a small boost to Title I grants for disadvantaged students and federal funding for students in special education.

And it would have put $300 million in new money into a fund to help states improve their early-childhood programs, as well as $240 million to extend for an additional year the Investing in Innovation program, which scales up promising district practices, and was first financed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It also would have provided $550 million for a second year of the administration’s signature Race to the Top program, also created under the recovery act. The program rewards states for embracing tougher academic standards, new teacher quality practices, and other education redesign priorities

But a short-term extension makes it difficult for districts to plan their budgets going forward, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.

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Most school officials aren’t banking on a major funding boost from the federal government, she added.

“The message has been very clear with the new Congress: There’s not going to be a ton of new spending, if any,” she said. “Our members understand that, they’re not budgeting around increases.”

Still, she said flat funding—or even a cut for Title I and special education—would come at a particularly painful period, as districts are coping with the drop-off in one-time aid from the recovery act, which provided some $100 billion for education, and the Education Jobs Fund, a separate measure passed last summer that directed $10 billion to prevent layoffs.

The new spending deal could also set up a situation where Congress is trying to finish the fiscal year 2011 spending bills at the same time members are digesting President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposals, which are likely to be released in February. That could add fuel to the funding fight.

Twisted Road

The final budget deal culminates a protracted, complicated struggle to pass the spending measures for fiscal year 2011.

Lawmakers left to campaign for the midterm elections this fall without finishing any spending bills for this year. They passed a series of stop-gap measures, keeping funding for most programs flat. The latest of those measures expired Dec. 18.

To keep the government functioning, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a proposal that would have provided funding for most federal programs, including the U.S. Department of Education, at last year’s levels until fiscal year 2011 ends Sept. 30.

That proposal also would have included $550 million for another year of the Race to the Top competition. Lawmakers had to make a special exception for Race to the Top because it was financed under the recovery act, not the regular, fiscal year 2010 budget bill.

Advocates for pre-kindergarten programs were dismayed with the Senate’s decision to scrap the broad spending bill, which would have provided $300 million for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a competitive grant program to help states boost the quality of their early-education programs.

Given Republicans’ plans to clamp down on spending, it seems like a long shot that a new program would be created in whatever final budget is approved for fiscal 2011.

When he was campaigning for office, President Barack Obama called for an additional $10 billion annually for early-childhood programs, but that money has never materialized. Advocates were also hoping to see a new pre-kindergarten program, financed using projected savings from a bill making major changes to the student-lending program, but that program was jettisoned due to lack of money.

Some advocates remain optimistic. Marci Young, the Project Director of Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States to improve early childhood programs, said she would like to see a new focus on pre-kindergarten put in place when Congress renews the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “We certainly hope this is a stumbling block and not the end,” she said.

Vol. 30, Issue 15

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