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Education Funding

Return of Pet Projects in Congress Could Mean More Money for Schools to Address COVID-19

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 03, 2021 3 min read
In this Jan. 4, 2020 photo, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, DeLauro was elected chair of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee by fellow Democrats, a position colleagues say will make her the most powerful politician from Connecticut in Washington in generations.

Federal funding for pet projects obtained by lawmakers for their states and local communities—what Washington commonly calls earmarks—are back. And their return to Capitol Hill could create a new avenue for school districts and some education organizations to fund projects to address the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the newly installed chair of the House appropriations committee, announced the return of earmarks (which she called “community project funding”) late last month. Earmarks function outside the regular, annual process through which Washington funds programs including special education and the Title I program for low-income students.

When it comes to education, earmarks haven’t necessarily been a huge source of funding in relative terms, but but that doesn’t mean they’ve been minuscule. In the federal government’s fiscal 2008 budget, for example, the U.S. Department of Education received funding for 945 earmarks totaling $383.3 million out of a $68.6 billion budget. That’s an average of $405,291 per earmark, if you’re scoring at home.

Earmarks come out of discretionary spending and are therefore funded at the expense of longstanding, popular programs like Title I. However, this year, there might be less of a fight for dollars, since Congress has more flexibility than in recent years to significantly increase education spending, said Sarah Abernathy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group.

That’s because caps on discretionary spending that have recently constrained it won’t be an issue, meaning less of a zero-sum game between earmarks and other spending. (Read more about those caps here.)

“If Congress is going to bring back earmarks, this is the year to do it,” Abernathy said. She added that in her view, there’s “nothing inherently good or bad about having earmarks.”

Past earmarks for education have funded everything from after-school programs to school construction. As schools respond to the pandemic, there could be a lot of interest in—and competition for—earmarked spending on things like upgraded HVAC systems, programs that provide extended learning time beyond the regular school day, and other needs. Abernathy said that’s “absolutely” her expectation.

DeLauro, by the way, also heads the House appropriations subcommittee for K-12 education spending. She’s led that panel since 2019.

Efforts to make funding for pet projects more transparent

Earmarks have a long and controversial history in Congress. Lawmakers put a moratorium on earmarks in 2011 after Republicans took control of the House.

Supporters say they can provide crucial and worthy support for things like local infrastructure projects, and can be useful negotiating chits when members of Congress are trying to pass important or prominent bills. Critics say they often fund wasteful projects and create a too-chummy, if not sleazy, climate on Capitol Hill that is far from transparent.

Here’s how the new process for earmarks will work: Groups ask their member of Congress for an earmark for a specific project (for-profit entities are barred from receiving earmarks directly). DeLauro said each lawmaker can submit up to 10 requests for earmarks. Lawmakers must post their earmark requests in an online, searchable database. And there’s a similar requirement for projects that are actually funded in appropriations bills. These requirements represent DeLauro’s efforts to make the process more open to the public and address the concerns about transparency.

Earmarks will be limited to 1 percent of discretionary spending, following a bipartisan committee’s recommendation. But in response to a question from Education Week, a spokesman for the House appropriations committee did not specify if that means Education Department earmarks specifically will be limited to 1 percent of the department’s discretionary funding.

Any earmark Congress adopts won’t be enacted until fiscal 2022, which officially begins Oct. 1. So earmarks won’t represent a fast injection of cash for schools to help with the coronavirus or other needs. However, Congress has struggled mightily in the last several years to pass spending bills on time; fights over funding the government have dragged on past the start of October for weeks or months, and government shutdowns have occasionally been the result.

If nothing else, Abernathy said, the return of earmarks might help with those negotiations and get Congress to pass spending bills closer to Oct 1.

Separately, the Senate will soon take up a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that includes $129 billion in relief for schools; the House passed the bill last week. Learn more about what’s in that legislation for K-12 education here.

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