Advocates worried about the future of education funding are focusing on the congressional “supercommittee” charged with making major, long-term changes to the federal budget—a task that could have lasting implications for K-12 spending and other aid for children.
The bipartisan panel, whose nickname reflects its broad authority, is charged with coming up with ways to reduce the nation’s deficit by at least $1.5 trillion in the next 10 years. Lawmakers on the panel, which is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans from each chamber, can propose budgetary changes in a host of areas—including taxes, entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and discretionary spending, which includes K-12 education.
Education lobbyists consider it unlikely that the panel, which was created as part of a compromise to raise the federal debt ceiling, will give close, line-by-line scrutiny to the U.S. Department of Education’s budget. Still, the panel’s sweeping authority and mammoth mandate present a challenge for education advocates, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition.
Advocates are used to pressing federal lawmakers on specifics, such as how much to increase Title I grants for disadvantaged students or whether to cut back funding for literacy programs, Mr. Packer explained. The supercommittee, by contrast, has the authority to take its work in almost any direction.
Members of the “supercommittee”
U.S. House of Representatives:
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
“It’s not challenging because they are out to get education,” Mr. Packer said. “It’s challenging because it’s an unknown.”
The worst-case scenario, Mr. Packer said, is that the committee will not be able to meet its $1.2 trillion goal, or will be unable to persuade its congressional colleagues to endorse its plan on a straight up-or-down vote by a late-November deadline. Then, sharp cuts would take effect, beginning in January of 2013.
Most education programs would see a cut of 7.8 percent in 2013, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ nonpartisan research arm.
Since the panel is likely to consider K-12 aid in the context of other domestic discretionary spending, advocates for health, education, labor, juvenile justice, and other programs are coordinating their efforts. “The goal is to make sure that the committee takes a balanced approach that doesn’t disproportionately impact programs for low-income children and their families,” said Nancy Zirkin, the executive vice president for policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington-based coalition of more than 200 national organizations.
The Leadership Conference has helped a number of groups that work in support of children and families to combine forces to persuade the supercommittee to avoid cuts to health, education, and social-welfare programs. The lobbying coalition was established earlier this year, when Congress was on the brink of triggering a government shutdown over the fiscal 2011 appropriations bills.
A number of organizations with a deep interest in education policy, such as the Center for American Progress, the Education Trust, and the Committee for Education Funding, are involved in the Leadership Conference’s effort.
Some of the members of the supercommittee have long records on K-12 issues, particularly Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who serves as one of two co-chairs. Sen. Murray, a former preschool teacher and a prominent liberal, has long been interested in literacy programs and is a senior member of the committees that oversee K-12 spending and policy. But other members haven’t concentrated much on education and will need to be caught up on the issues, according to advocacy groups.
At least two members—Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who is the other co-chair of the committee, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.—are well-known conservatives. Sen. Toomey is a former president of the Club for Growth, a political action committee that supports candidates who pledge to rein in spending and cut taxes.
Earlier this year, Sen. Toomey introduced his own budget proposal, which failed to pass the Senate. The plan would have meant a 30 percent cut in nondefense discretionary programs, including K-12 education, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington that focuses on low-income families.
Rep. Hensarling is a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a coalition of GOP House members that calls for slimming down the government. (“Conservative House GOP Group Flexes Policy Muscle,” June 6, 2006.)
Still, education advocates, such as the National Education Association, will be reaching out to all members of the committee, regardless of party, said Mary Kusler, the NEA’s manager for federal advocacy.
The union has good relationships with the Democrats on the panel, she said, but also with at least two of the Republicans: Rep. Fred Upton, of Michigan, who oversees the House panel that deals with health care, and Rep. Dave Camp, also of Michigan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxation.
While the NEA is concerned about potential cuts to K-12 aid, the union will also be trying to persuade the supercommittee to adopt President Barack Obama’s jobs proposal, unveiled this month. The jobs plan calls for $55 billion in K-12 spending, including money for school construction, and to avert teacher layoffs. (“Jobs Plan Highlights Education,” Sept. 14, 2011.)
“Our number-one priority for the supercommittee is job creation,” said Ms. Kusler.
The NEA is also keeping a close eye on potential changes to Medicaid, which provides health insurance to a sizable proportion of children, she said. “If they’re not healthy, they’re certainly not going to be ready to learn at school,” Ms. Kusler said.
School districts also receive reimbursements through Medicaid for services such as speech or physical therapy for students with disabilities.
Both of the national teachers’ unions—the 3.2 million-member NEA and the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers—crack the list of the top 100 donors to supercommittee members, according to Open Secrets, a website of campaign-contribution data run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
The NEA comes in at No. 32 on that list. It gave $297,650 to supercommittee members from 1989 to 2011. Eighty-nine percent of that money went to the Democrats now on the supercommittee,while just about 10 percent of it went to Republicans on the supercommittee.
The AFT wasn’t far behind, with $215,950 in donations, all of it to Democrats now on the committee. That puts the AFT at 68th on that list of top 100 donors.
Including both individual contributions and those from their political action committees, the two unions combined would have placed fifth on the list of big donors to supercommittee members, behind AT&T and Microsoft, which rank third and fourth respectively.
Still, the Open Secrets data indicate that, even taken together, the NEA and AFT donations are dwarfed by the more than $1 million in campaign contributions to the supercommittee from the Club for Growth, the PAC that Sen. Toomey used to head.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as Deficit-Panel Members Get Renewed Attention From K-12 Advocates