Precollegiate education got a lump of coal from Congress a few days before Christmas, as lawmakers essentially froze all discretionary spending and then heaped a 1 percent cut on top of that as they scrambled to approve an overdue school spending measure.
Late Wednesday night, the Senate approved by voice vote the $142.5 billion fiscal 2006 spending bill for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The bill narrowly passed the House on Dec. 14 by a vote of 215-213. The measure contains essentially the same plan for education spending as an earlier House-Senate conference agreement, which was unexpectedly defeated in the House in late November, but resuscitated this month.
A separate defense spending bill, which passed the Senate on a vote of 93-0 late Wednesday and was approved by the House by unanimous consent on Thursday, contained a 1 percent, across-the-board spending cut to all federal programs with the exception of veterans’ programs. The 1 percent slice eliminated what had been very slight increases to K-12 education’s two largest programs—Title I and special education—and turned them into cuts.
“It’s a dirty shame,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, of the final education budget.
The Department of Education’s discretionary spending level in the appropriation bill will see a reduction of $624 million from the fiscal 2005 level. However, overall discretionary spending for the Education Department will ultimately increase, with the addition of $1.6 billion in hurricane relief aid that is also included in the defense spending bill.
With the 1 percent cut, funding for Title I, the nation’s largest federal program to help educate disadvantaged children, fell $28 million from fiscal 2005 to $12.7 billion. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act fell by $7 million over fiscal 2005 to $10.6 billion. The new spending bill decreases the federal share of the costs of educating students with disabilities from 18.6 to 17.8 percent, representing the first drop in spending in that area in a decade, according to a Democratic education aide.
The education spending bill includes a number of other cuts, including a 96 percent cut to comprehensive school reform, from $205 million to $8 million; a 45 percent cut to education technology state grants, from $496 million to $272 million; a cut of nearly 50 percent to state block grants for innovative education from $198 million to $99 million; and a 20 percent reduction to state grants for the safe and drug free schools and communities program, from $437 million to $347 million.
A third bill, also taken up during the hurried last days before the holiday break, affected education. Called the budget reconciliation measure, it institutes spending cuts to reduce the deficit, and contains $12.7 billion in cuts to the student loan program. It also has a provision to open up a student-loan forgiveness program—which had earlier applied only to public school math, science, and special education teachers—to all private school teachers who work at schools in which 30 percent of students are from low-income families, said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the NEA.
But Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said it was important to look at the big picture in the bill. Though he said he “would have preferred the previously passed Senate bill,” this measure contains some positives, which include increasing loan limits for first- and second-year students to $3,500 and $4,500, and increasing graduate borrowing limits to $12,000.
“With this bill we were able to reduce spending through changes in the way lenders operate, but at the same time we shielded direct impact to students and actually increased student opportunities,” he said in a written statement.
While a last-minute holiday crunch in Congress is typical, longtime observers say it was unusual for lawmakers to wait this long to pass an education spending bill and to have its outcome so uncertain. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30 and the Department of Education has been operating under a continuing budget resolution that keeps its funding mostly at last year’s levels.
The end-of-the-year wrangling had bleary-eyed lawmakers taking votes in the wee hours of the morning. At one point, Senate lawmakers rejected the defense spending bill because it contained a provision to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling and sent aides scrambling to reformulate the bill in order to make it palatable enough to finally pass.
“We’re frustrated about the entire endgame,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. “One of their last acts was slashing funding for education and they did it in the middle of the night with big consequences for every school and district.”