Congress returns from its summer recess this week with a full plate of unfinished business on the future of K-12 spending and policy—a tall order in Washington’s polarized political climate.
Federal lawmakers, who have already had two protracted battles this year over budget issues, must finish the appropriations bills for fiscal 2012. The budget process is complicated by the work of a new panel created as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling and charged with finding ways to significantly cut the deficit over the next decade.
The panel’s recommendations, due in November, could have a dramatic impact on discretionary federal spending, including for education.
Lawmakers are also continuing to ponder reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, although the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are taking far different approaches to the long-stalled renewal, which few observers expect to be completed this year.
At the same time, the Obama administration is preparing to offer states waivers of parts of the current version of the law—the No Child Left Behind Act—if they are willing to embrace reform priorities expected to be outlined later this month.
The upcoming spending battles have broad implications for the waiver plan and for ESEA reauthorization in general, said Kate Tromble, the director of government relations for the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for disadvantaged and minority students.
“What happens with the funding is going to be the biggest thing to watch this fall,” she said. Creating “a new generation” of the NCLB law will “require some money. It’s difficult to figure out how you continue moving forward” on education redesign if there are significant cuts, she added.
And advocates are keeping a close eye on President Barack Obama’s scheduled Sept. 8 address to Congress, in which he is expected to outline his plan for jump-starting the nation’s sluggish economy and putting more Americans back to work. Some are pressing for new money for K-12 schools, including funds to prevent further teacher layoffs and to revamp aging school facilities.
The deficit-reduction panel, nicknamed the “supercommittee,” was created this summer as part of a compromise between President Obama and congressional leaders on raising the debt ceiling.
It is made up of 12 lawmakers—three Democrats and three Republicans from each chamber—and is tasked with drafting legislation to carve at least $1.2 trillion out of the budget deficit over the next 10 years.
Members of the panel have until Nov. 23 to come up with a plan. Their colleagues can then pass it or reject it, without the opportunity to make changes.
The committee has broad authority and is permitted to suggest specific spending levels for domestic programs, including education. But few expect the panel will take that route. Instead, committee members are more likely to consider education in the context of overall domestic, discretionary spending, which also includes many health, jobs, and environmental programs.
Regardless, education proponents are watching the panel’s work closely. If the committee can’t reach agreement—or if Congress rejects its plan—deep cuts kick in that would affect almost every federal program.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington, is predicting an across-the-board cut of 9 percent for affected programs in nondefense agencies—including the U.S. Department of Education—if the committee doesn’t come up with a viable alternative.
That would amount to roughly a $4 billion slice out of the Education Department’s nearly $70 billion budget, according to the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition.
“The biggest threat to education is if the [supercommittee] doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF.
Meanwhile, advocates also are keeping a wary eye on fiscal 2012 appropriations legislation. Mr. Obama asked for $77.4 billion for education, a 10.7 percent increase, in part to help cover the rising cost of Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college.
But supporters agree that the overall increase is unlikely to materialize.
“At best, we will wind up with a freeze,” Mr. Packer said. “There will probably be cuts to some programs.”
What would be particularly vulnerable are programs that the president slated for consolidation in his budget request for fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1. Many long-standing Education Department programs, such as state grants for educational technology, were scrapped after a budget standoff earlier this year that nearly resulted in a government shutdown.
But some programs that House Republicans and the Obama administration sought to eliminate skated by, including the $52 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program.
Now, champions of those programs are worried their luck may not hold.
For instance, the American School Counselors Association is informing lawmakers about the impact the counseling program has in their districts, said Amanda Fitzgerald, the organization’s director of public policy.
Even some of the president’s priorities are on shaky ground. The high-profile Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs, originally part of the 2009 federal economic-stimulus program, received small increases in fiscal 2011. But those programs may be susceptible this year, as lawmakers seek to significantly reduce spending.
To get new money for those programs last year, administration officials likely made it clear to Congress that they were his highest priority, said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst for the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.
“It’s hard to say whether the president is going to put all his weight behind the same program two years in a row,” she said.
The first part of what could be another spending showdown could begin this week, when President Obama is expected to unveil his plan for spurring job creation.
School construction proponents are urging the administration to close certain tax loopholes and funnel the savings to school maintenance and repair. The 21st Century Schools Fund, a research and advocacy organization in Washington that promotes high-quality facilities, would like to see Mr. Obama put $50 billion toward upgrading schools.
“There is an enormous backlog” of construction projects, said Mary Filardo, the group’s executive director. “At the same time, we have skilled trades people out of work in communities across the United States.”
Mr. Obama gave those advocates reason to be optimistic during an Aug. 30 interview on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” a nationally syndicated radio program.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff that needs to get done,” he said. “There are schools all across the country that right now you could put people to work fixing up.”
The president even hinted at the possibility of federal funding to stave off further teacher-job cuts.
“We’ve got the capacity right now to help local school districts make sure that they’re not laying off more teachers,” Mr. Obama said. “We haven’t been as aggressive as we need to, both at the state and federal level.”
Still, any school construction proposal is likely to face significant hurdles, particularly among Republicans who believe school facilities should be a local expenditure.
In fact, school construction funding was a major sticking point when a Democratic-controlled Congress negotiated the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 stimulus law that provided some $100 billion for education.
The legislation’s sponsors initially sought to include a new school construction grant program in the bill, but it was jettisoned to garner support from moderate Democrats and Republicans. Now, with the GOP in control of the House, a school construction program would face even longer political odds.
Finding money to stave off layoffs could also be an uphill battle. The administration had a tough time securing $10 billion for the Education Jobs Fund in the summer of 2010, also at a time when both chambers of Congress were in Democratic hands.
The House, meanwhile, is likely to consider at least three bills this fall aimed at reworking targeted pieces of the ESEA, all of which have already gotten a stamp of approval from the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
But only one of the measures—a bill to bolster charter schools—has support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The other two pieces of legislation caused division in the committee and were approved along strict party lines.
One of those measures would eliminate more than 40 programs in the Education Department. Many of them have been on the books for years, but haven’t received federal money recently, such as the Star Schools Distance Learning program. But others, such as the $46 million Teaching American History initiative, are still operating.
Another, more controversial measure, which passed out of the education committee on a party-line vote in July, would offer districts expanded flexibility in using federal dollars. The bill would permit districts to shift money aimed at particular populations of students, such as children in poverty, and direct it to other activities or groups of students, such as those in special education.
Republicans argue the measure would make it easier for districts and states to direct federal money where it is needed most, while Democrats maintain that it would allow districts to ignore poor and minority children.
Although all three bills would make important changes to federal K-12 policy, none gets at the accountability and teacher-quality issues at the heart of the NCLB law. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, is planning to introduce a pair of new ESEA-related bills this fall that would address such issues.
On the Senate side, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., its ranking member, have been meeting regularly to consider comprehensive legislation.
Mr. Harkin initially set a goal of considering an ESEA reauthorization bill in committee last spring. But lawmakers have struggled to reach agreement on key issues, including accountability and the scope of the federal role in K-12 education.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week