Education Funding

Congress Prepares to Raise the Debt Ceiling. But K-12 Funding Is Still in Jeopardy

By Mark Lieberman — May 31, 2023 3 min read
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks with reporters on the debt limit as he walks, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Congress is racing this week to ratify an agreement for averting the debt ceiling crisis that would have wreaked immediate havoc on funding for public education—but K-12 schools aren’t out of the woods yet.

President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy announced Sunday that they had reached a deal that would place some limits on federal spending in exchange for suspending the legally mandated debt ceiling until 2025.

Those limits won’t affect the federal money schools are set to receive for the coming school year, but they could spell trouble for K-12 schools in the coming years, said Sarah Abernathy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

“For fiscal years 2024 and 2025, I think that there’s going to be a real challenge in getting any increases in education or protecting against cuts,” Abernathy said.

The proposed agreement would keep federal spending on non-defense programs essentially flat in fiscal year 2024, starting this October, and would allow for an overall spending increase of up to 1 percent in 2025. The agreement sets out goals for capping increases in the subsequent years as well, but those measures are non-enforceable suggestions. The measure effectively sets overall caps on spending, but doesn’t specify spending levels for individual programs.

In a letter Wednesday to federal lawmakers, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, urged Congress to approve the proposed agreement and, later, protect education programs from being slashed.

“We urge the full appropriations committee to engage in bipartisan, bicameral negotiations that respect the broad programs funded, to ensure that final funding levels are tailored and reasonable, not blunt and careless, and to protect federal education flagship programs—like Title I and IDEA—from deep or disproportionate cuts,” wrote Noelle Ellerson Ng, the organization’s associate executive director for advocacy and governance.

K-12 schools appear to have averted the steepest possible cuts

The GOP’s previous spending proposal included sharp cuts to Title I, IDEA, and other programs that serve K-12 schools. By comparison, the proposed across-the-board spending limits will have more modest effects.

Still, education funding could suffer as a result. In the years following spending limits that were enacted to avert a comparable debt ceiling crisis in 2011, federal spending on education remained virtually flat, data collected by Abernathy’s organization show.

If inflation continues to rise, even flat funding with no cuts could mean lost revenue for crucial programs that serve high-poverty schools, students with disabilities, and English learners, among other vulnerable groups.

“We have our work cut out for us to make the case for why these investments are key,” Abernathy said.

The federal government annually contributes 8 to 10 percent of the nation’s overall K-12 funding, with the bulk coming from state and local governments. But roughly 2,900 of the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts depend on the federal government for more than 10 percent of their annual revenue, according to a previous Education Week analysis. They stand to be most affected by future limits on federal education spending.

The current proposal before Congress also includes a plan to rescind some COVID relief funds that the federal government sent out nationwide during the early years of the pandemic.

Those “rescissions,” first reported in detail by NPR, include $392 million for education—but Abernathy said she’s heard from contacts on Capitol Hill that the vast majority of those dollars were for higher education institutions that chose not to take advantage of the funding. ESSER dollars that districts haven’t yet spent remain intact.

Pieces of the agreement have drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, and many steps remain before the agreement reaches Biden’s desk for a signature.

America could default on its debt obligations as early as June 5 if a bitterly divided Congress doesn’t raise the legally mandated debt ceiling by then, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last week. Biden has signaled he’s willing to consider future actions to eliminate the perennial debate over raising the debt limit.

The outcome of a default would be far worse than anything in the current debt ceiling agreement, Abernathy said.

“It’s a very good thing if the debt ceiling is raised and we don’t have economic chaos,” Abernathy said.

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