Published Online: October 11, 2011
Published in Print: October 12, 2011, as Dueling Visions in Congress on K-12 Aid

Bills Show Dueling Priorities on K-12 Spending

A showdown looms between the two houses of Congress on their differing visions for K-12 education funding, pitting formula-grant programs crucial to school districts against some of the Obama administration’s favored competitive-grant programs—a split with some unlikely political wrinkles.

Key education programs, including Title I grants for disadvantaged students and aid for special education, would get flat funding for the 2012 fiscal year under a measure approved Sept. 21 by the Democratic-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee. But the administration’s prized Race to the Top program, its Investing in Innovation Fund, and the School Improvement Grant program would be extended.

By contrast, the funding proposalRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader before the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee would include big boosts for special education and Title I. But the bill would also scrap funding for 31 education programs—including the Race to the Top, i3, and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, prominent parts of the administration’s education redesign agenda.

Education analysts see some political posturing behind the proposal in the House.

“It’s almost like a dare,” said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst at the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. “It’s the House saying to the Senate Democrats, ‘We dare you to vote against more money for Title I and special education’ ” to save President Barack Obama’s top priorities.

Differing Visions

With the U.S. House of Representatives in Republican hands and the Senate controlled by Democrats, the two chambers of Congress have very different visions for fiscal 2012 education funding.

Title I Grants for Districts
House: $15.5 billion
Senate: $14.5 billion
Current: $14.5 billion
Obama Administration Budget Request: $14.5 billion

Special Education
(total, including state grants)

House: $13.75 billion
Senate: $12.5 billion
Current: $12.5 billion
Obama Administration Budget Request: $12.9 billion

Race to the Top
House: 0
Senate: $698.6 million
Current: $698.6 million
Obama Administration Budget Request: $900 million

Investing in Innovation Fund
House: 0
Senate: $149.7 million
Current: $149.7 million
Obama Administration Budget Request: $300 million

Teacher Incentive Fund*
House: $399.2 million
Senate: $300 million
Current: $399.2 million
Obama Administration Budget Request: NA *The Obama administration proposed combining this into a broader funding stream aimed at rewarding effective educators, which would be financed at $500 million.

Striving Readers*
House: 0
Senate: $183 million
Current: 0
Obama Administration Budget Request: NA * The administration proposed combining this program into a broader stream aimed at improving literacy, which would be financed at $383 million.

Promise Neighborhoods
House: 0
Senate: $60 million
Current: $29.9 million
Obama Administration Budget Request: $150 million

School Improvement Grants
House: 0
Senate: $534.6 million
Current: $534.6 million
Obama Administration Budget Request: $600 million

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, criticized the House bill’s choices.

“It’s baffling that some members of Congress would abandon reform in favor of programs that do not challenge the status quo,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Programs like Race to the Top, i3, and SIG are supporting real reform at the state and local level. This is not the time to stop.”

But U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., the author of the House legislation, said that the proposal is about “investing in people and helping create the jobs they need to take care of their loved ones.” He said the aim of the bill is to fund “things like education to empower innovation” while “freeing [people] from stifling government regulations.”

Competitive vs. Formula

Rep. Rehberg’s proposal to boost funding for core formula programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 has set up an interesting political dynamic. Some school district officials, who typically side with Democrats when it comes to education funding issues, generally prefer the House bill because of the big increases for major formula programs—even if they come at the expense of the Obama administration’s vision for education overhaul.

Rep. Rehberg’s bill would raise funding for Title I grants to districts to $15.5 billion, a $1 billion increase. And special education, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, would get a $1.2 billion hike, to $13.75 billion.

The House and Senate bills also take very different approaches to putting the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students cover the cost of college, on firmer fiscal footing.

The choice between more money for core formula programs and more money for competitive grants is obvious to Benny Gooden, the president-elect of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.

“Anything that either cuts or level-funds Title I and IDEA is going contrary to where we really ought to be in this country,” said Mr. Gooden, the superintendent of the 14,000-student Fort Smith, Ark., school district, where about 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Mr. Gooden cautioned federal lawmakers against “level-funding programs that are your core values” in order to fund “what I would call pet initiatives, new initiatives” that require districts to compete. The winners of those grant competitions aren’t likely to be “the places that have the greatest need,” he added.

Advocates Weigh In

Some fellow district advocates share Mr. Gooden’s view. Overall, the National School Boards Association prefers the House version of the spending plan.

“We know that Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant program have benefited some of our school districts,” said Deborah Rigsby, the director of federal legislation for the NSBA, which is based in Arlington, Va. “But when you look across the board at what benefits the greatest number of school districts,” she said, “it’s [Title I and special education]. … The House proposal is definitely something that’s consistent with what our membership has voiced support for over the years.”

Other advocates see proposals to like in both bills. Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, said that’s the case for the 3.2 million-member teachers’ union.

“We think that both bills have really important pluses that we would like to see merged into one bill,” she said. The increases for Title I and special education “are really big numbers,” she noted. “We haven’t seen numbers like that proposed in an education funding bill in a really long time.”

Ms. Kusler added: “We recognize that the large competitive-grant programs are not funded. We have always talked about the importance of funding the formula grants.”

But the NEA likes the way the Senate committee handled changes to the Pell Grant program. And the Senate bill would continue to fund School Improvement Grants, which Ms. Kusler said are critical to helping low-performing schools. Rep. Rehberg’s bill would scrap funding for the SIG program entirely.

The union also is opposed to language in the House bill that would deal a major blow to implementation of President Obama’s health-care overhaul. And it is concerned about Rep. Rehberg’s decision to eliminate some targeted programs, such as the $52.9 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program, Ms. Kusler said.

Democrats Wary

House Republicans don’t have a record of commitment to education spending, said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending. She said Rep. Rehberg voted to cut $700 million from Title I last year, and voted against money to thwart teacher layoffs included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the 2009 stimulus package—and the 2010 Education Jobs Fund.

“It’s nice that House Republicans are finally recognizing the need for additional federal resources to benefit our nation’s students,” Ms. Cyrul said. She added: “As for the increases for Title I and IDEA, ... they are more than offset by cuts to the Pell Grant program that will affect students in virtually every school district in the country.”

In addition to the president’s top K-12 priorities, the House bill takes aim at a number of smaller, targeted grant programs that the administration had sought to combine into broader funding streams.

Those programs include the counseling program, the $180 million Mathematics and Science Partnership, the $44 million Teaching American History Program, and the $78.8 million Carol M. White Physical Education Program.

By contrast, the Senate measure would eliminate funding for only a handful of programs, including the $25.7 million Voluntary Public School Choice Program, which the House would keep intact, and the $26 million Foreign Language Assistance Program, which would be scrapped under both measures.

TIF, Pell Changes

But the bill before the House committee would leave unscathed at least one competitive-grant program prized by the Obama administration: the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create performance-pay programs. Under the House bill, TIF would receive $399 million, the same amount as in fiscal 2011.

However, the TIF program would be trimmed under the Senate bill to $300 million. And language in the Senate measure seeks to broaden the focus beyond pay-for-performance programs. The bill would allow districts seeking grants to propose other activities aimed at bolstering teacher and principal effectiveness, in part because some Democratic leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee feel the program in its current form hasn’t been shown to be effective. The House bill doesn’t include that language.

The Senate measure also would restore $183 million in funding for Striving Readers, which lost all its money last fiscal year. The House bill would not restore the program.

The House and the Senate have sharply different visions, meanwhile, for the future of the Pell Grant program.

Both bills strive to keep the maximum Pell Grant at $5,500. The Senate bill would do that by making changes to the Federal Stafford Student Loan Program. The bill before the House committee, by contrast, would make significant changes to the program’s eligibility requirements, according to a New America Foundation analysis.

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For instance, students who attend college less than part time would no longer be eligible for Pell Grants. And students would be able to take part in the program for only a maximum of 12 semesters, down from 18 now. In addition, the maximum family income that would automatically qualify a student for the biggest Pell Grant would be cut in half, to $15,000, from $30,000.

The House bill would “decrease eligibility big time,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, the director of public policy for the American School Counselor Association, in Alexandria, Va.

“If something like this were to come to fruition,” she said, Pell Grants would primarily go “to your absolute neediest students. Just free and reduced lunch doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Neither chamber has indicated what the next steps will be on these appropriations measures.

Vol. 31, Issue 07, Pages 1,20-21

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