Education Funding

Federal Budget Standoff Puts Pressure on States, Districts

By Alyson Klein — March 11, 2011 4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan arrives to testify before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing about the Obama administration's budget priorities and policy proposals. Education funding has been among the high-profile areas under heated debate in Washington as Congress works to hammer out a permanent spending plan for the federal government.

States and school districts remain in suspense—and frustrated by their inability to plan—as Congress struggles to come up with a budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

With the government operating under a series of stopgap spending measures, the latest of which expires March 18, Democrats and Republicans are presenting very different longer-term visions for education spending. Democrats would like to see modest increases to a few key K-12 programs, while Republicans have sought significant cuts in education aid.

Meanwhile, school districts are wrestling with uncertainty. Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, said she has been fielding calls and e-mails from concerned school officials from around the country.

In recent years, Congress has rarely finished its spending bills by the Sept. 30 deadline, marking the end of the fiscal year. But the current situation is highly unusual. Usually at this time of the year, school district officials are focused on their state and local budgets—the federal piece has already been figured out, Ms. Ellerson said.

Districts need to know, for instance, how much Title I and special education aid they can expect in order to balance their budgets, Ms. Ellerson said.

Adding to the confusion this year, “the numbers keep changing” as lawmakers introduce and then defeat various proposals, Ms. Ellerson said, making it tough for districts to follow the state of play.

Agreement Elusive

The current, two-week stopgap measure finances most programs at fiscal year 2010 levels, but it also includes some important cuts to education. For instance, it scrapped the $250 million Striving Readers program, the $67 million Even Start Family Literacy program, and about a dozen authorized programs that were labeled “earmarks,” or congressionally directed spending. It would take new legislation to bring those programs back to life.

But agreement on a longer-term spending bill remains elusive.

Just last week, Congress rejected two different spending measures, a Republican-led proposal that would have imposed severe cuts and a proposal by Democrats that would have boosted education spending slightly. That sent lawmakers back to the drawing board to figure out how to proceed.

The measure passed by the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives would have cut more than $5 billion from the U.S. Department of Education, plus $1 billion from Head Start, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Senate rejected it, voting 44-56.

The measure also would have made a nearly $700 million cut to Title I grants to districts, and cut the maximum $5,550 Pell Grant award to needy college students by $845. And it would have eliminated more than a dozen smaller education programs.

But Senate lawmakers also voted 42-58 against the Democrats’ bill, which would have provided modest increases for Title I, extended the administration’s signature Race to the Top competition, and brought recently scrapped reading programs, including Striving Readers, back to life.

During the Senate debate on the budget proposals, Democrats charged that the House Republican bill would hurt education programs.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees education spending, acknowledged during the debate that the nation needs to get its spending under control, but he said deep education funding cuts are the wrong way to proceed. “Why would you want to take it out on kids?” he asked.

But Republicans said the Democratic bill wouldn’t help the nation get its spending under control.

“No business would [be] would run the way we run the United States government,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. “We’re facing a crisis, a debt crisis. ... Our crushing debt burden is like an anchor weighing down our economy.”

Duncan Testifies

Now, lawmakers will have to work together to come up with a compromise, and they don’t have much time. As of deadline late last week, it appeared that lawmakers would opt to craft yet another stopgap measure, funding the government for at least two more weeks. Such a move would give lawmakers a chance to work out their differences and possibly avert a government shutdown.

But even another short-term measure could spell further cuts to education programs. In previous spending bills, House Republican leaders have targeted programs for cuts that were slated for consolidation under the administration’s fiscal year 2011 and 2012 budget proposals.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified about the administration’s longer-range budget plans at a pair of congressional hearings last week. Those plans include consolidating 38 programs—including some of the programs cut in the most recent stopgap measure—into more targeted funding streams.

In an interview, Mr. Duncan said the consolidation proposal was “the right thing to do,” even though some say it may have made those programs appear vulnerable to lawmakers looking for cuts.

Mr. Duncan also said he is sympathetic to districts that are struggling with uncertainty about their budgets.

“It makes a tough situation harder,” he said.

Republicans have charged that Democrats have only themselves to blame for the budget upheaval, since they failed to pass any spending bills last year, when they had large majorities in both chambers.

The “Democrats did no budget, they did no appropriation bills, and as a result, they dumped this in our lap, and we are trying to clean it up,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters this week.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as States, Districts Caught in Federal Budget Clash

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