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Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives appear determined to make deep cuts to education and related programs in the temporary spending bill that would keep the federal government operating for the rest of the fiscal year, even as President Barack Obama seeks a modest funding boost next year.
That sets up a fiscal face-off in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And, should a bill with severe cuts make it through that chamber, the president has pledged to veto it. The current temporary measure expires March 4, and failure to reach agreement on a new one could mean the first federal government shutdown in more than a decade.
“We’re clearly headed to some kind of showdown,” said Joel Packer, a veteran education lobbyist who now works for the Washington-based Raben Group. He represents the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition. The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2012 spending plan seeks to raise funding for the U.S. Department of Education by more than 4 percent, Mr. Packer noted.
“House Republicans and the administration are moving in exact opposite directions. These are not just minor differences,” Mr. Packer said. “They’re radically different visions of what the federal role in education should be.”
The measure lurching through the House last week included a more than 16 percent cut to the Education Department’s discretionary budget for the current fiscal year, including scrapping more than a dozen K-12 programs and slicing others once considered untouchable, such as Pell Grants to help low-and moderate-income students pay for college.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in a Feb. 14 telephone briefing that he’s ready to work with lawmakers from all parts of the political spectrum. But he added that the proposed cuts to the current budget would hobble the nation’s future economic progress.
“You can’t make cuts that send us in the wrong direction,” he said.
But GOP lawmakers insisted the cuts were carefully considered and needed to restore fiscal sanity.
“This bill is about shared commitments and shared sacrifice,” Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in the floor debate. “Make no mistake: These cuts will not be easy, and they will affect every congressional district. But they are necessary and long overdue.
“Although we recognize that every dollar we cut has a constituency of support, an association, an industry, individual citizens who will disagree with our decision,” he said, “these cuts are necessary.”
Last year, Congress failed to reach agreement on spending bills for fiscal 2011, which started on Oct. 1 of last year. Since then, Congress has passed a series of stop-gap measures funding most of the federal government—including the Education Department—at fiscal 2010 levels. The latest of those measures is the one that expires March 4.
The House Republican spending measure debated last week would cut the $14.5 billion program of Title I grants to school districts by $693.5 million. And the plan would cut Head Start, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, by $1 billion below the $7.2 billion fiscal 2010 level.
Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, and a blogger for the Education Week website, argued that the House Republicans “are proposing sensible, moderate trims” to programs, while “going root and branch after a slew of small programs many of us think are of dubious utility.”
But Democratic lawmakers expressed outrage at the GOP’s choices.
“People have been talking about ‘tough cuts’—it’s not tough to take money away from a poor child. It’s not tough to kick a child out of Head Start,” Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a Feb. 17 interview with MSNBC.
“You want to do something tough?” he said. “Take away tax breaks from the hedge fund managers that don’t deserve it. … That’s tough. You know why? Because they can fight back. Head Start parents don’t get to fight back very much. Poor children don’t get to fight back very much.”
The original version of the Republican measure, released late Feb. 11, would have cut funding for state grants under the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act, which provide $557 million to special education.
But Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the mother of a special-needs toddler, introduced an amendment to restore special education funding to the fiscal 2010 level of $11.5 billion.
In exchange, her amendment would cut $336 million out of the $545.6 million Title I School Improvement Grant program, and $500 million out of the $2.95 billion Improving Teacher Quality State Grant program, both of which were initially spared under the GOP bill. The amendment was approved.
The temporary spending bill seeks to eliminate more than a dozen smaller, more targeted education programs.
The Obama administration in its fiscal 2011 budget plan a year ago—and again, in its fiscal 2012 proposal, released last week—had proposed consolidating many of those programs into broader funding streams. For instance, smaller literacy programs would have been combined into a big competitive fund aimed at improving reading and writing.
But, under the House Republicans’ bill, many of the same literacy programs would be scrapped entirely, including the Even Start Family Literacy program, funded at $66 million; the Striving Readers program, funded at $250 million; the $19 million Literacy Through School Libraries program; and the $25.6 million National Writing Project.
No Race to Top, ‘i3’ Cash
The GOP measure would also zero out money for mathematics and science partnerships, now $180 million, and the Education Technology State Grants, funded at $100 million, among other programs.
Republican lawmakers also didn’t find any new money for the administration’s top priority, a continuation of the president’s signature K-12 initiative, the Race to the Top. President Obama had asked for $1.35 billion to continue the competitive-grant program, which was financed with economic-stimulus money. Last calendar year, Congress had been poised to provide some of that money.
And there would be no money for another round of the Investing in Innovation grant program, intended to scale up promising practices at the district level. The administration had originally asked for $500 million to continue i3, another stimulus-funded initiative.
Pell Grants to help low- and moderate-income students attend college—which are facing a $20 billion shortfall in fiscal 2012 because of high demand—would be slashed as well, resulting in an $845 reduction to the maximum per-student grant of $5,550.
As of late last week, a handful of programs were expected to come through unscathed, including the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts create pay-for-performance programs and got $400 million in fiscal 2010, and grants for charter schools, which got $256 million in fiscal 2010.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as GOP: Slash Current Aid