The federal spending package for fiscal 2023, passed this week by both houses of Congress, boasts increases in funding for high-need schools, students with disabilities, school meals, and civics education. But federal investment in many cases still falls well short of what schools and their supporters say they need.
The Title I program, which aims to direct more funds to districts and schools with large shares of students from low-income families, jumped from $17 billion last fiscal year to $18.4 billion in the latest round of federal spending, which covers the period from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023.
Federal spending on special education, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, rose from $13 billion to $15.5 billion. And federal funds to support English-learners will grow from $802 million to $890 million.
Meanwhile, proponents of a more robust civics education effort got their first boost in many years, with a $23 million investment, more than triple the annual spending in previous years. . Research advocates are excited by a requirement for the Institute for Education Sciences to use a portion of its $121 million allocation for “quick turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions intended to significantly improve outcomes for students"—in other words, funding for research projects geared toward specific, measurable solutions for addressing students’ learning needs.
Many education observers earlier this year had predicted a rough road ahead for increased K-12 education funding, with the midterm elections looming and inflation at an all-time high. But Democrats outperformed expectations on Election Day, providing momentum for the party to negotiate on a budget agreement and avert a government shutdown while it controls both houses of Congress.
“Last year, I talked about how we saw the increase as nice but underwhelming relative to what the Democrats had proposed,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “This year, we were bracing for not that type of increase, so honestly, these increases are good.”
The U.S. Senate approved the spending package on Thursday, followed one day later by the House. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill next week, prior to the Dec. 30 deadline.
Many school district priorities are still found wanting
Several of the big-ticket K-12 education items increased without coming close to reaching the levels the federal government has promised.
The Title I number falls well short of Biden’s presidential campaign promise to triple funding to nearly $45 billion during his term. Reforms to the outdated and flawed Title I funding formula, which often fails to direct aid to schools and states that need it the most, aren’t included in the agreement.
Meanwhile, IDEA funding still trails by half the authorized amount Congress can spend for the additional services students with disabilities are entitled to receive from schools.
School meal funding also fell short of proponents’ demands.
The federal government did permanently authorize the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which allows students eligible for free meals during the school year to take advantage of them in the off-season as well. But more ambitious proposals, like the widely popular push to make school meals free for all children nationwide, went unanswered.
“As much as they underfund programs, schools still open their doors, meals still get served. Schools make it work,” Ellerson Ng said. “Congress doesn’t actually feel the whole pain of its failure to fund the programs that it mandates.”
The finalized budget arrived on Biden’s desk nine months after his administration released its proposed version and nearly three months into the fiscal year it covers.
Several items Biden proposed in March, including $350 million to improve school staff recruitment and retention and $1 billion to double the number of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers, remain unfulfilled.
Losses for child tax credit, subsidized internet access
Other funding priorities dropped off altogether.
The temporary pandemic-era expansion of the annual Child Tax Credit helped offset steep parenting costs and slashed nationwide rates of child hunger and child poverty. But lawmakers couldn’t find room for it in this year’s budget, despite fervent last-minute support from advocacy groups.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund, established during the pandemic to provide students and teachers with internet-accessible digital devices they can use at home, is also nowhere to be found in the latest budget, even as many districts such as Seattle, New York City, transform snow days into remote learning days.
“We’re looking at millions of devices across the nation that will just go dark,” Ellerson Ng said.
Civics programs and education research get a boost
Advocates hope the new civics funding from Congress will pave the way for passage of a bill, introduced in 2020, that would invest $1 billion in expanding civics education in schools and gauging how well students are learning it.
“The country has made a significant down payment on the kind of civic education needed to sustain and strengthen our constitutional democracy,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, in an email statement Friday after the spending package passed the House.
Other education programs that saw increases include Impact Aid for schools on federal land, up from $1.56 billion to $1.62 billion; Safe Schools and Citizenship Education to supplemental mental health services, from $361 million to $457 million; and Career, Technical, and Adult Education, up from $2.09 billion to $2.2 billion.
The budget also includes some requirements for accountability. The Education Department will be required to provide more detail on how schools are spending COVID-relief funds and on how it’s responding to a recent federal watchdog report that outlined some states’ need for technical assistance from the federal government when working with districts on school improvement efforts. .