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Senate Panel Nips at Key Obama Competitive Grant Programs

By Alyson Klein — July 11, 2013 4 min read
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The Obama administration’s signature competitive grant programs—Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and the School Improvement Grants—survived, but took some serious abuse this week from some Democrats during the Senate Appropriations committee’s consideration of a bill to finance the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2014, which starts Oct. 1. The bill, which was approved by a Senate appropriations subcommittee earlier in the week, includes a huge boost for prekindergarten programs, another big Obama priority, here.)

A few lawmakers in the president’s own party offered—or lent support to—a series of amendments that would steer some money away from those programs, which make up the core of the administration’s education redesign priorities. In general, the lawmakers weren’t opposed to the Obama programs, they just thought scarce dollars would be better used elsewhere.

• The biggest and most important news: U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced an amendment to shift $150 million from the administration’s Race to the Top for Higher Education proposal, which was initially slated to get $400 million under the proposal, and put it into the Low Income Heating Assistance program, which helps disadvantaged people cover the cost of their energy bills. The amendment passed on a voice vote.

“I think this is a very interesting initiative,” Reed said of Race to the Top for higher education. He said the pilot program could “get along very well with $250 million ... We are not denying the administration an important initiative ... but we need to keep people warm this winter.”

The approval of the amendment means that, at best, the administration is likely to have only $250 million to allocate to a new state grant competition aimed at helping states hold down tuition costs while also boosting student outcomes, such as graduation rates. That’s not a whole lot of money to play around with—the administration had initially sought $1 billion.

• Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., put forth an amendment that would strip $43 million from the Promise Neighborhoods program, which was originally slated to get $100 million under the bill. The Promise Neighborhoods program helps school districts partner with outside organizations to offer wrap-around services, like arts education. The $43 million would instead be steered to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a formula funding program that goes out to every school district in the country. IDEA state grants are financed at nearly $11.6 billion and were already slated for a $125 million.

Four Democrats (mostly from rural states) joined with committee Republicans to support the Kirk amendment: Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Jon Tester of Montana.

“The Promise Neighborhoods is a really good program,” Shaheen said. “But this program, like other programs that are a priority for the Department of Education, doesn’t provide any benefit for New Hampshire at all.”

The amendment was approved on a vote of 18 to 22.

This isn’t the first time that Kirk has monkeyed with Promise Neighborhoods, which he describes as an untested and unproven program. Back in the fall of 2011, he introduced an amendment to the Senate education committee’s No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization that would have gotten rid of language authorizing (aka officially creating) the program.

• Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Kirk teamed up on an amendment to strip $35 million from the School Improvement Grant program, which has been controversial on Capitol Hill and is slated for $567 million. The money would instead go to charter school grants. Harkin vehemently opposed the language, and the amendment was defeated on a 13-17 vote.

“Many [charters] are excellent, they are literally saving children’s lives,” Landrieu said. She noted that federal watchdogs have questioned the implementation of the SIG program.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel that oversees K-12 policy “vigorously” opposed the amendment, noting that a number of states don’t even have charter laws, and would lose money under the amendment.

The bill itself would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $69.4 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion over fiscal year 2013, without taking into account the sizeable across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The House Appropriations Committee, which is in way less spendy of a mood than the Senate panel when it comes to education, still has to take up its own bill for fiscal year 2014.

It’s important to note that all the funding amounts for this bill (which you can see in this very handy and awesome chart) aren’t really accurate, because they are all subject to cuts under sequestration. The cuts—which effect both military and domestic programs—are slated to be in place for the next 10 years unless Brokedown Congress can stop them—and, so far, it hasn’t made much headway.