Whenever lawmakers reach a final 2018 budget deal, whether that’s before Feb. 8 or after, we’ll finally figure out how much funding there will be for the U.S. Department of Education. We’ll also get an answer (sort of) to a long-standing fight in Washington: the fate of caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending, including education.
In addition, we’ll find out whether the two pots of money for those areas of the federal budget will be the same size. That’s important to analysts and lobbyists.
First: Remember sequestration? In 2011, Congress agreed to annual, automatic cuts to defense and non-defense spending, as a way to force lawmakers to come to a spending deal. That bigger spending deal never happened, but lawmakers come up with temporary agreements to blunt those automatic cuts, which are known as sequestration. That still involves imposing annual—albeit higher—caps on both types of spending. The last such deal was for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, which former House Speaker John Boehner pushed through Congress before retiring. In fiscal 2017, the cap is $519 billion for non-defense spending, including for education.
That two-year deal doesn’t cover the 2018 budget. That means sequestration’s spending caps are officially due to kick in again. Technically, the 2018 cap for non-defense discretionary programs, at $516 billion, is a little bit below the 2017 cap. The House GOP appropriations bills passed last year provides only $511 billion for non-defense programs. That serves as a reminder that lawmakers don’t have to spend all the way up to the caps if they don’t want to. Still, there’s a decent chance that in any final spending deal for 2018, the caps for both defense and non-defense spending will go up.
But GOP leaders don’t want to treat defense and non-defense spending equally. President Donald Trump and others have advocated for more money for the Pentagon. If they simply got rid of the sequester for 2018, the cap on non-defense discretionary spending could rise to $553 billion. Defense discretionary spending, however, could go up to $603 billion. A separate budget blueprint approved by the House, as well as the National Defense Authorization Act, would allow defense spending to rise even more, up to $621 billion.
You could argue that advocates for education funding ought to be pleased with, or at least not terribly distressed about, a $37 billion hike in maximum spending on non-defense discretionary programs, especially given that the GOP controls Washington. But they really want something else: They want parity between defense and non-defense discretionary spending.
Why does parity matter so much to education funding advocates? First, they believe domestic non-defense spending is just as important as spending at the Pentagon, so the two should get the same amount of money.
Second, they’re worried that the $37 billion increase in particular (assuming lawmakers approve it) would be split up between lots of different domestic programs, leaving education itself with a relatively small slice of federal cash, assuming it gets anything at all. .
Third, there’s also a political angle. If defense discretionary spending outpaces the non-defense side—by up to $72 billion, potentially—in the next spending deal, then domestic programs like education could be pegged as less important and more vulnerable to potential budget cuts in what will be a Republican-dominated Washington for at least the next year.
“If we lose the toehold we have with parity ... we won’t have the leverage,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
She also noted that any budget deal that involves spending limits will likely cover fiscal 2019 as well as fiscal 2018.
Where does the appropriations process for education stand? We mentioned the House appropriations bill above. It would cut $2.3 billion from the department’s roughly $68 billion budget. The bill keeps Title I funding flat at $15.4 billion, and eliminates the $2 billion Title II program that funds teachers’ professional development and helps reduce class size.
The Senate appropriations bill, meanwhile, keeps department funding virtually flat—there’s a relatively small $29 million increase in there. It would also preserve Title II.
Both bills ignore the two new school choice initiatives for public and private school choice, respectively, championed by the Trump administration in its 2018 budget proposal.
The thing to watch about those two appropriations bills isn’t so much the bills themselves, but how the final budget deal treats disparities between them. Among other things, that means watching whether lawmakers meet halfway on Title II funding, which would represent a 50 percent cut to the program, as well as whether the Trump school choice push is officially killed off for fiscal 2018.
But more generally, the education department could still see a cut based on how those bills treat the agency, even if other domestic discretionary programs get a slice of that $37 billion increase.
Photo: The U.S. Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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