An unexpected defeat for House Republicans on an education appropriations bill earlier this month leaves federal spending on K-12 education for fiscal 2006 in limbo as lawmakers try to strike a deal.
Twenty-two moderate Republicans joined with Democrats on Nov. 17 to defeat the $142.5 billion spending bill for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The vote was 224-209.
The House’s rejection of the spending bill, which was the result of a House-Senate conference committee after the two chambers had passed differing measures, threw its future into question. The bill included $56.5 billion for discretionary spending by the Department of Education, essentially the same spending level as 2005.
A lack of significant increases to some education programs and major cuts to others were key reasons for the bill’s defeat.
“The plan coming from the Republican leadership is to cut education funding and take us in the wrong direction,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said in a Nov. 17 statement. “The majority of the House of Representatives sent a stinging rebuke to that kind of out-of-touch and out-of-control thinking and said instead that what Americans want is a good education for their children so they can get good jobs.”
Lawmakers left Washington for a Thanksgiving recess, putting off further action on the spending measure until December.
The conference plan contained only nominal, $100 million increases for each of the two biggest programs for K-12 education: Title I aid to help educate disadvantaged students and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for students in special education. The increases for each program would amount to less than 1 percent. For Title I, the $100 million increase to $12.8 billion would be the smallest dollar increase for the program in eight years.
The bill also included a 45 percent cut to education technology state grants, from $496 million to $275 million; a cut of nearly 50 percent to state block grants for innovative education, from $198 million to $100 million; a 56 percent cut to the Even Start literacy program, from $225 million to $100 million; and a 20 percent cut to state grants for state grants for the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, from $437 million to $350 million.
Some Republicans said that despite the controversy the measure would likely be approved the next time around.
“The bill had many positive features for education, and I feel confident that as it is reviewed, we will do our best to address some of the concerns expressed by members,” Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, said in a statement.
Holding Off Cuts
Even before the measure made it to the House floor, there were warnings that things might not go as planned. As Republican and Democratic appropriators met in the conference committee to hash out differing House and Senate versions, even Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, expressed frustration.
He took the unusual step of stripping the earmarks, or pet spending projects of lawmakers, from the bill to help make cuts required by a budget resolution. He said with the cuts that needed to be made, it would be “really unconscionable to keep the earmarks this year.”
However, the conference spending plan is now off the table, and Congress passed a continuing resolution to allow education funding levels to continue at fiscal 2005 levels until Dec. 17. The 2006 federal fiscal year began Oct. 1.
After the House returns from its recess on Dec. 5 and the Senate comes back on Dec. 12, several things could happen to the education budget, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group in Washington.
Lawmakers could attach the Labor-Education-Health and Human Services appropriations bill to a Department of Defense spending bill that is set to be considered shortly after lawmakers return. That move, wrapping the two pieces of legislation in an omnibus spending bill, would make it less palatable for lawmakers to vote against education spending, since they’d also have to defeat the defense bill.
Also, lawmakers could opt for a yearlong continuing resolution, which could allow them to instruct the Education Department to use either the lowest proposed 2006 spending level from either the House or the Senate version of the bill or to retain fiscal 2005 spending levels for education programs, Mr. Kealy said.
But Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that the plan was for House and Senate conferees to again hash out spending levels and vote on the proposal as a stand-alone bill. She said it was “very likely” that funding levels would change again.
The reprieve gives those lobbying for education increases more time to press lawmakers on the issues, said Mr. Kealy, whose group represents a host of education organizations.
“Now, we have a shot here to hold off cuts and get them to try to do something better,” he said.