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Budget & Finance

Where’s the Senate’s Education Spending Bill? Will the Holdup Affect Schools?

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 14, 2019 4 min read
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The House spending bills, including an all-time high for federal education aid, have generated a great deal of interest this year. It’s the first time in a decade Democrats control the chamber, and they want to draw sharp distinctions between their priorities and the Trump administration’s. But with all that done and dusted weeks ago, you might be wondering: Where’s the Senate school funding bill for fiscal 2020?

Good question. By late June last year, the Senate appropriations committee had already passed its legislation to fund the U.S. Department of Education, along with other agencies, for fiscal 2019. Fast forward to today, and we don’t even have an education spending bill for the Senate subcommittee that handles K-12 funding to consider. If you’re looking at Washington politics from the outside, it might seem odd.

So what’s the holdup? In plain English, the problem lies with figuring out caps on federal spending. That’s the legacy of a 2011 deal in Congress that applies automatic spending cuts to both defense and non-defense programs, unless lawmakers can agree to new limits on both types of federal spending. (Here’s some background on that issue from early 2018.) The deals have lifted these caps over time; the last deal covered fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees spending bills, has said he’d prefer to have Congress agree on those new caps before he moves ahead with spending bills that include specific dollar figures, Government Executive reported a few days ago. The House already agreed to bust through 2011 caps earlier this year, paving the way for its spending bills. But obviously the House and Senate ultimately need to cooperate on the issue.

These spending bills cover fiscal 2020, which starts on Oct. 1. So there’s not a lot of time for the Senate to get moving, especially since Congress has an August recess. In addition, lawmakers potentially have to deal with lifting the debt ceiling—the point at which the federal government runs out of borrowing power to pay all its bills—as soon as early September.

Sounds like a prelude to frantic, last-minute Beltway fights, right? Maybe so. But any such drama probably won’t significantly impact federal funding for schools, said David DeSchryver, a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors, a research and consulting firm. (Right now, the Education Department has a $71.5 billion budget.)

  • First, he said there aren’t many signs yet that lawmakers are truly alarmed about not getting spending bills done and triggering a government shutdown. By Washington standards, they’re proceeding at a relatively leisurely pace, DeSchryver noted, and lawmakers tend to work out deals that avert some of the more-dreaded consequences (last winter’s shutdown being one exception). “I don’t see any reason why we would expect anything different than more of the same,” he said. “Past behavior is predictive of future behavior.”
  • For another thing, DeSchryver said, school budget officers have gotten used to waiting a few months past the official Oct. 1 start of each fiscal year to get word on what their upcoming federal funding will look like.
  • Finally, remember that many federal education programs are forward funded. This means federal spending for disadvantaged students (Title I) in fiscal 2020, for example, impacts the 2020-21 school year. So that gives districts some time to plan, assuming the appropriations process doesn’t become a total trainwreck. One prominent exception? Impact Aid—more about that here.

And when we do get a spending bill, what can we expect? Likely something that doesn’t look very different from recent Senate education spending bills, according to DeSchryver. That means small funding increases for big-ticket programs that are based on preset formulas, like special education grants to states and educator training. Title I and special education spending combined make up more than half the money the Education Department spends on K-12.

“The formula programs are the ones that really matter,” DeSchryver said.

The odds are also very much against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ school choice ideas getting funded, he added.

But DeSchryver said it’ll also be interesting to compare final funding numbers for Title IV, a flexible block grant districts can use to help students’ health and access to diverse learning opportunities, and career-technical education grants. Both get in the neighborhood of $1.2 billion in aid now, and both address students’ transition to postsecondary education and careers in different respects.

Photo: Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, and subcommittee member Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., talk last year during a hearing on the Trump administration’s U.S. Department of Education budget request. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)