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Senate Cuts Education Aid in Stimulus

By Alyson Klein — February 10, 2009 4 min read
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Cash-strapped schools, colleges, and prekindergarten programs would receive more than $80 billion in federal assistance under a version of the massive economic-stimulus package passed by the U.S. Senate today on a partisan, 61-37 vote.

The $838 billion measure, which received only three Republican votes, will now have to be reconciled with an $819 billion House measure that includes substantially more funding for education programs, including for school construction and direct aid to states.

The Senate’s original bill, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Jan. 27, would have provided up to $140 billion in education spending, about the same level as in the House bill.

But that measure was trimmed back late last week by a group of moderate lawmakers, lead by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ben Nelson, D-Neb, in order to win passage in the Senate.

During floor debate Monday, Sen. Collins highlighted $13 billion in special education funding included in the slimmed-down measure. The money, which would be spread over fiscal years 2009 and 2010, represents the biggest boost for the program ever. Ms. Collins said it would help shore up local school budgets and avert layoffs.

“Every school district throughout the United States will benefit from this increase in special education funding,” Sen. Collins said. “That, in turn, will help communities retain support staff and teachers in the classroom because, after all, they cannot cut back on funding for special education because [of federal law].”

But Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, worried that the bill wouldn’t do much to jump-start the economy.

The legislation “spends everything we have on nothing we are sure about,” he said during floor debate. And he worried that the spending hikes would be difficult to trim down the road.

“Lawmakers [will] simply come back to the well in a few months and exert even more pressure to maintain the new programs and keep these new jobs and keep the bloated spending that supports them. There is nothing temporary about that kind of spending,” Sen. Enzi said.

In addition to Sen. Collins, the only other Republicans to vote for the bill today were Sen. Olympia Snowe, also of Maine, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Bills Differ

The House measure, passed Jan. 28 on a vote of 244-188, with no GOP support, would provide $14 billion for school construction, and would include $79 billion in state stabilization money, the majority of which would go to education.

The Senate’s compromise agreement eliminated $16 billion in school construction funding included in the Senate’s original bill, and scaled back the state stabilization fund to $39 billion. Both House and Senate bills include tax provisions that help finance bonds for school construction.

President Barack Obama said in a prime-time press conference last night and in a town hall meeting in Florida today that he considers school construction to be an important part of an economic-stimulus package, signaling that the administration might seek to restore some of the grant funding in conference, in addition to the construction bonds.

The Senate compromise measure would provide $1 billion for education technology, the same level as in the original Senate measure and in the House bill.

And the Senate bill would trim to $12.4 billion the $13 billion slated for Title I programs for disadvantaged students in the House measure for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

In both versions, the money for Title I includes $2 billion for school improvement grants to help schools failing to meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s achievement targets.

The Senate’s state stabilization fund would include $7.5 billion to states as incentive grants as a reward for meeting certain education performance measures; money for local school districts and public colleges and universities, distributed through existing state and federal formulas; and flexible aid to states that could be used for education, but also for other pressing needs, such as public safety.

The House’s stabilization fund would include $15 billion in incentive grants for states, districts, and nonprofit organizations, and $25 billion in flexible aid to states that could be used for education and other priorities.

The Senate bill would provide $1.05 billion for Head Start, compared with $2.1 billion in the House bill, and $50 million for teacher-quality state grants, as opposed to $100 million in the House measure.

And the House bill includes some programs not included in the Senate measure but embraced by the education reform community. They include $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to districts to create alternative pay programs; $250 million for state data systems; and $25 million in separate funding for charter school facilities.

The bills also take differing tacks toward state spending. Under the House bill, the Title I money would be subject to the maintenance-of-effort provisions already in law, which require states to keep up past funding levels so as not to use federal aid simply to replace some of their own spending. In order to make use of the money available under the stabilization fund, states would have to maintain their education funding at fiscal 2006 levels.

But the Senate language would allow the U.S. secretary of education to waive maintenance-of-effort provisions for the Title I money, special education funding, and other education programs during fiscal years 2009 and 2010 only.

Even before the Senate vote today, education advocates were girding for the House-Senate conference.

Randall Moody, the chief lobbyist for the National Education Association, said the union supported the bill’s passage in the Senate in the hopes of getting more money for education programs, including school construction and Head Start, when the bills are reconciled.

“Obviously we like the House version better,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week

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