Published Online: November 4, 2013
Published in Print: November 6, 2013, as Education Cuts Hang in Balance as Budget Haggling Begins

Education Cuts Hang in Balance as Budget Haggling Begins

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., left, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., emerge from an initial meeting of the budget conference committee at the Capitol.
—Evan Vucci/AP

Education advocates are keeping close tabs on a congressional conference committee charged with coming up with a budget solution in hopes that lawmakers may stop a series of blunt, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The cuts, which have already eliminated thousands of Head Start slots and caused some schools near Native American reservations and military bases to lay off staff, are slated to stay in place for a decade unless Congress acts to halt or change them.

It's unclear if this new panel, formed last month through legislation that reopened the federal government after a 16-day shutdown and suspended the debt ceiling after the nation nearly defaulted, will be able to make headway. Congress has tried—and failed—to get rid of sequestration since the cuts were put in place in August of 2011, as part of yet another debt-ceiling deal.

And lawmakers will have a lot of ground to make up. The gap between the House and Senate budget proposals when it comes to labor, health, education, and similar programs is a whopping $42 billion, or more than the federal government spends on Title I grants for disadvantaged children, special education state grants, and Head Start each year.

CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET PANEL:
Committee Leaders

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and a key player on the Senate panels overseeing K-12 policy and spending. A former preschool teacher and parent advocate, she’s been an outspoken critic of sequestration’s impact on education, recently appearing at a rally on Capitol Hill to highlight cuts to the Head Start program.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R.-Wis.

Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and GOP vice-presidential nominee in 2012. During the presidential race, he took some heat from education advocacy groups for his proposed budget, which seeks to significantly rein in domestic spending, without offering specific numbers on particular education programs.

For now, experts on the federal education budget are keeping their expectations in check.

"I think they will find a clever way to punt on this issue," said David DeSchryver, the director of Whiteboard Advisors, a strategic policy organization in Washington.

And Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition, proclaimed himself "mildly hopeful." The panel may not get rid of sequestration altogether, but it could postpone the cuts for a year or two, or lessen their impact, Mr. Packer said.

Policy Direction

Members

House Republicans
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga*
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.

House Democrats
Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

Senate Republicans
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Sen Charles Grassley, R-Iowa
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.*
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Senate Democrats
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.*
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.*
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.*
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, organizes with Democrats

* Indicates membership on House or Senate education committee

Mr. DeSchryver said educators should pay close attention to the panel's work, because it could set the stage for lawmakers to take a different approach to the cuts, trimming individual programs, for example, rather than making broad, across-the-board cuts.

If the committee takes a scalpel to the Education Department's budget—or gives the lawmakers on the appropriations committees authority to decide where to trim—the programs that might be most vulnerable include the administration's marquee competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, which rewards states and districts for embracing certain education redesign priorities, Mr. DeSchryver said.

Race to the Top and other competitive grant initiatives, such as Investing in Innovation, were funded in the Senate Democrats' never-enacted spending bills for fiscal year 2014, but House Republicans have slated those programs for elimination for several years.

When it comes to deciding where to cut, lawmakers will have to consider their constituents' reactions. "If they get rid of Race to the Top, some people will shrug and be disappointed, but if they reduce special education or Title I substantially, people would go bonkers," said Mr. DeSchryver, an expert in federal grants. Still, he added, eliminating all of the Obama administration's favorite competitive-grant programs would not get the panel to $2.4 billion—the amount of money taken out of the Education Department's budget last year, thanks to sequestration—so other cuts would likely be needed.

Fiscal Mission

As part of last month’s deal to end the 16-day government shutdown and keep the nation from defaulting on its debt, a group of negotiators in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate is trying to find a long-term budget solution that could include big changes—or even a permanent end—to the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The cuts have squeezed both domestic programs such as education, favored by Democrats, and military programs, consistently supported by Republicans. The budget conference committee includes three House Democrats, four House Republicans, and all of the members of the Senate budget committee, for a total of 29 members.

Key Number
7.3 percent, the amount of the sequester cut this year, according to a March 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research organization.

Key Dates
Dec. 13 - The budget panel's proposals are slated to be released

Jan. 15 - A bill extending funding for most federal programs at last year's levels expires.

Feb. 7 - Projected date by which Congress must raise the federal debt ceiling to avoid default.

Second Try

The panel is made up of many of the same lawmakers that sat on the "supercommittee," a bipartisan, bicameral panel that failed to complete a similar task in 2011. The Senate chair of the new budget panel, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.—was a supercommittee member, for instance.

But while the supercommittee had a broad mandate—thinking big about the right long-term mix of revenues, changes to entitlement programs, and spending—this budget panel could opt for a much more limited approach that would simply make changes to sequestration for a year or two.

The impact of sequestration on education has been uneven and difficult to quantify. But some programs have seen deep and painful reductions. The Head Start early-childhood education program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lost 57,000 slots. And districts that receive federal Impact Aid, which helps make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence nearby, have had to make significant reductions, including eliminating teaching positions and even closing or consolidating schools.

Related Blog

But many districts have been able to cope with the cuts without having to reduce staff or programs, in part because state budgets have largely rebounded from the recession, and in part because schools in most of the 42 states that have received waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act have gotten access to the 20 percent of their Title I funding that was previously set aside for school choice and tutoring.

Vol. 33, Issue 11, Page 22

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