Education Advocates Anxious Amid Budget Uncertainty

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With the threat of a federal government shutdown looming—and education advocates anxious about the prospect of further federal aid cuts—congressional lawmakers last week wrangled over a bill to finance the federal government through the end of September.

The current stopgap spending measure expires April 8, and with lawmakers and the administration negotiating behind closed doors, it was unclear how—or even whether—the two sides would be able to come together on a longer-term bill before that deadline.

“We’re going to continue to fight for the largest spending cuts that we can get,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters last week.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing education spending, said in a statement: “We all recognize that we need to reduce spending, and any compromise we reach on the budget will include significant cuts. But if we want to stay strong as a nation, we have to maintain a ladder of opportunity for our young people.”

Education advocates have been carefully monitoring the budget negotiations because a range of K-12 programs could be on the chopping block, along with other domestic discretionary programs.

House Republicans want to rein in domestic spending in order to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. They already have approved a bill that would slice more than $5 billion out of the budget of the U.S. Department of Education, plus $1 billion from Head Start, an early-childhood program for disadvantaged students.

The Democratically controlled Senate defeated the spending cuts, but did not pass its own version of a longer-term spending bill.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is seeking modest increases, including for key programs such as Title I and special education and new money to continue Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant programs, the administration’s signature grant competitions, started under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Stopgap-Bill Cuts

Typically, the budget process winds up in late fall, but this year, lawmakers were unable to agree on a spending plan for fiscal 2011, which technically started back on Oct. 1 of last year. Lawmakers have passed six extension measures in all, financing most programs at fiscal 2010 levels since then.

But several of those stopgap bills have also included cuts to high-profile education programs, including the elimination of the $250 million Striving Readers program, a comprehensive literacy program, and the $67 million Even Start Family Literacy program.

Education advocates argue that K-12 programs can’t withstand further cuts.

Federal funds—particularly Title I funds for disadvantaged children—are desperately needed, given the cloudy fiscal picture in most states and districts, said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member teachers’ union.

“At a time where one in five children lives in poverty, there is no greater imperative than to provide school districts with desperately needed Title I dollars to help students become college-and-career ready,” she said.

Vol. 30, Issue 27, Page 26

Published in Print: April 6, 2011, as Education Advocates Anxious as Budget Deadline Looms
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