House OKs 2007 Budget Hike for Education

Overdue bill advances just before president to unveil his 2008 request.

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The House last week approved a long-awaited federal spending bill for fiscal 2007 that would provide a modest increase for the Department of Education, including extra money for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The measure passed Jan. 31 by a vote of 286-140, including 57 Republicans and nearly all Democrats. It contains $57.5 billion for the Education Department for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

That would be a 1.7 percent increase over the fiscal 2006 allocation of more than $56.5 billion, excluding extra money provided in last year’s budget to help schools and students affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It would be a 5.6 percent increase over President Bush’s fiscal 2007 budget request of $54.4 billion for the department. The Senate could take up a similar bill this week.

Congress rarely passes all of its appropriations bills before the Oct. 1 deadline, but the departing Republican-controlled 109th Congress took the unusual step of extending nearly all spending bills until February, leaving the new, Democratic-led Congress to complete them. The measure the House passed last week would extend funding for most federal programs, including a majority of education programs, at fiscal 2006 levels.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the chairmen, respectively, of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, made room in the House bill for funding increases to Title I, IDEA, Head Start, and Pell Grants in part by eliminating earmarks—projects requested by individual lawmakers—and cutting nearly all the funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps finance district performance-based pay and other teacher-improvement programs.

“We’re very happy to see that we’re finally getting good news on education funding,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying organization that represents a host of education-related groups. “It then becomes a base to go forward for fiscal year 2008, where we can try to put some real increases on the board.”

The House measure would bolster funding for Title I grants to districts by $125 million, bringing it to $12.8 billion. President Bush had proposed flat funding for the program, at $12.7 billion. Title I, the main federal program for disadvantaged precollegiate students, is vital to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, state and district officials say.

The bill would provide $125 million for the Title I school improvement fund, which was created to help schools that are not meeting the NCLB law’s goals to improve instruction. The fund was authorized under the 5-year old education law, but money has never been appropriated for it.

Cuts to Teacher Fund?

The measure also would add $200 million for grants to states under the IDEA, the major federal law on special education, from the $10.58 allocated in fiscal 2006.

But even with that increase, the federal share of funding for students with disabilities would decrease, from 17.8 percent to 17.2 percent, because special education enrollment is increasing in many districts, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators. But she said that if the program had been level-funded, the federal share would have been just 17 percent. Under the 2004 renewal of the IDEA, the federal government is authorized to cover up to 40 percent of the states’ excess special education costs, based on the national average per-pupil expenditure.

House members also followed through on a Democratic campaign promise from the midterm elections to raise the value of Pell Grants, which go to college students. The bill would raise the maximum annual award by $260, to $4,310. This would be the first time the Pell Grant maximum has been increased in four years.

“It’s great news. It’s not that in the big scheme of things $300 is going to have an enormous impact on access to higher education, but it’s progress,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Feb. 1 announced that President Bush’s fiscal 2008 budget, scheduled for release this week, would propose a $550 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, bringing it to $4,600.

Education Department officials were dismayed to see that the House bill would provide almost no money for the year-old Teacher Incentive Fund. The program, which was appropriated $99 million in fiscal 2006, would receive just $200,000 this year.

“The department is very concerned with the signal that this budget cut will send to the field,” Robert Stonehill, the deputy assistant director for academic improvement and teacher quality, said in an e-mail. A second round of competition for the awards starts this fall, he said. The first round, announced this fall, handed out $42 million. ("Teacher-Incentive Plans Geared to Bonuses for Individuals," Nov. 15, 2006.)

“Districts that are seeking to reward their best teachers and principals may hesitate to apply for [the] grants if they think congressional support is not strong,” Mr. Stonehill said.

Vol. 26, Issue 22, Pages 19-20

Published in Print: February 7, 2007, as House OKs 2007 Budget Hike for Education
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