Lack of Clarity in Budget Bill Leaves Ed. Dept. Some Flexibility
The tumultuous budget process that finally produced a federal spending deal for the rest of fiscal 2011 also left a lack of clarity in final funding levels for U.S. Department of Education programs.
Typically, lawmakers set new fiscal year spending levels for every federal program. But this year, lawmakers just extended funding for a number of programs at fiscal 2010 levels. At the same time, the Obama administration also made a number of cuts, including to programs in the Education Department.
The final budget agreement, reached April 8 just hours before the federal government was slated to shut down, resulted in a department budget of $68.5 billion for fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, after adjusting for the Pell Grant program. That’s down from $69.8 billion in the previous fiscal year using the same yardstick.
But in a number of cases—such as the nearly $3 billion Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program—spending levels aren’t in the formal bill. Instead, they are outlined in charts accompanying the legislation.
For instance, according to the charts prepared by congressional aides, the teacher-quality grants are slated to be cut by $475 million. But that cut isn’t actually written into the bill.
The Education Department has 30 days from April 15, when the package was signed into law, to set final spending levels, and in some instances could become the target of advocates looking for a way to have funding restored.
But the department is not planning to make major changes to the spending plan outlined by congressional aides, said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the agency.
“We believe that Congress was clear about where they wanted cuts to be made,” Mr. Hamilton said. “We have a very limited amount of flexibility in how to carry out a small number of those cuts, not wide latitude.”
Budget experts say that’s a smart move. Making major changes, they say, could prove politically perilous.
“It would be unwise for the department to manipulate the unspecific language in the bill. That would jeopardize their relationship with Congress,” said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst with the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
Still, even lawmakers acknowledge that the budget process opens the door to more flexibility this year.
“The Senate and House Appropriations committees expect that when the Education Department writes its spending plan for fiscal year 2011, it should strongly consider the funding-level assumptions that the committees used to write the final spending bill,” said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that sets the funding for the department. “However, the committees also understand that only the bill language is legally binding, so the department has some discretion.”
At least one lawmaker is hoping to persuade the department to use some of its flexibility to help a program that is slated to be defunded in the charts that accompanied the bill—but was not specifically zeroed out in the law.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a longtime supporter of school libraries, has spoken to both Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget about whether the department can restore some money for the Literacy Through School Libraries program, which was financed at $19 million in fiscal 2011. He’d also like to get dedicated funding for school libraries down the line, said his spokesman, Chip Unruh.
In general, however, education advocates expect little to change from the spending parameters outlined in the final budget deal.
“There could be minor differences for smaller programs,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition. “But I’d be surprised if there are any surprises.”
Vol. 30, Issue 30, Pages 22-23