Any significant increases in federal funding for K-12 education before the 2008-09 school year would be unlikely under a short-term budget plan outlined by leading congressional Democrats last week.
The two Democrats slated to head the appropriations committees said they would deal with a budget backlog with a quick fix that would finance most federal programs at existing levels for the 2007 federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
“While the results will be far from ideal, this path provides the best way to dispose of unfinished business quickly and allow governors, state and local officials, and families to finally plan for the coming year with some knowledge of what the federal government is funding,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., said in a joint statement last week.
While some school officials said the two lawmakers’ strategy would expedite and simplify budget planning for the next school year, advocates for education spending expressed disappointment that schools would be locked into fiscal 2006 spending levels. That would produce three consecutive years of essentially level federal funding after four years of healthy increases.
“You see the trajectory starting to slide,” said Jeff Simering, the legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group representing 66 of the nation’s large urban school districts. “It’s not a pretty picture.”
Rep. Obey and Sen. Byrd said they would make “limited adjustments wherever possible” to current spending levels for some programs, but a congressional aide familiar with the appropriations process said such changes wouldn’t dramatically increase the $37.6 billion the U.S. Department of Education is spending on K-12 education in the current school year.
“There will be some room for tweaks, but it’s not going to be a Democratic bill,” the aide said.
Because the fiscal 2007 budget will finance K-12 programs in the 2007-08 school year, any chances of major increases appear to be dashed until 2008-09.
But one of the biggest congressional proponents of federal school aid said he would support the plan because it would be fiscally prudent as Congress sets out to reduce the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will be $286 billion on a fiscal 2007 federal budget of $2.8 trillion.
“We’ll be getting a report soon on where we are on the legacy of fiscal irresponsibility that’s been left behind by previous Congresses,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who will become the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee next month, said at a press conference last week.
Although Rep. Miller has often accused President Bush of failing to adequately fund the No Child Left Behind Act, he said Democrats—who won majorities in both houses in the midterm elections—are “going to have to be careful how we go forward,” as they balance their goal of deficit reduction with the desire to increase education and other domestic spending.
While Sen. Byrd and Rep. Obey said their decision was made partially to expedite final spending decisions, conservative Republicans said it was a step toward fiscal responsibility.
In a statement, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, called the decision “somewhat refreshing,” but he warned that conservatives want the appropriators to deliver on their promises.
“Actions are louder than words, and we will be sure to hold the Democratic appropriators to their vow,” added Rep. Hensarling, who is chairman of the budget task force for the Republican Study Committee.
The Democrats’ statement, coming from the designated chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees in the new Congress, was considered a definitive road map for fiscal 2007 spending when they released it Dec. 11. But its prospects were somewhat clouded later in the week by uncertainty over the Democrats’ hold on the Senate.
Late last week, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., was in critical but stable condition after undergoing surgery to stop bleeding in his brain. If Sen. Johnson were unable to serve the final two years of his term, South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds, a Republican, would appoint his replacement. Assuming that Gov. Rounds selected a Republican, such a change would nullify the one-vote advantage Senate Democrats otherwise would have starting in January.
The prospect of level K-12 funding for the 2007-08 school year is disappointing to optimistic advocates, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. But such a result would probably be better, she said, than if the outgoing Congress, with Republicans in control of both houses, had passed the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services on schedule.
Both chambers’ bills would have provided less money for the Department of Education than last fiscal year’s $57.85 billion. The House bill would have funded the department at $56.15 billion, or a 2.9 percent decrease from fiscal 2006, while the Senate’s bill would have funded the department at $55.79 billion, or a 3.6 percent decrease.
One local educator said he didn’t expect the Democratic rhetoric for increasing education spending to be matched with real dollars in a fiscal environment marked by competing priorities, including financing the war in Iraq and balancing the budget.
“It’s pie in the sky to think they’re going to give you more money at this point with the deficit spending that’s out there,” said Timothy R. Sivertson, the president of the school board of the 1,000-student Elk Mound district in western Wisconsin. “I don’t think there was much expectation of an increase. We just have to be realistic with what we’ve got.”
Regardless of what the appropriations levels will be, educators are anxious to know a reliable estimate of how much federal aid they’ll receive for the 2007-08 school year, said Frank Mandley, the director of grants administration and government programs for the Broward County school district in Florida.
The 260,000-student district already has started planning next year’s budget and wants to have school-by-school allocations ready in March so principals can make personnel and program decisions. Under the plan outlined by Rep. Obey and Sen. Byrd, the district will be able to give principals the information they need to make those decisions, Mr. Mandley said.
Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as No Boon for Schools In Level Fiscal Plan