Despite efforts to provide small increases for Title I and special education, a late 1 percent across-the-board cut in most federal discretionary spending means that the Department of Education’s fiscal 2006 budget differs little from last year’s spending plan.
The Senate on Dec. 21 approved by a voice vote the $142.5 billion fiscal 2006 spending bill for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The bill narrowly passed the House on Dec. 14, by a vote of 215-213.
The measure contains essentially the same plan for education spending as an earlier House-Senate conference agreement, which was unexpectedly defeated in the House in late November, but then resuscitated last month.
A separate defense spending bill, which passed the Senate on a vote of 93-0 late on Dec. 21 and was approved in the House by unanimous consent the following day, contained the 1 percent across-the-board spending cut to all federal programs, with the exception of veterans’ programs. That cut eliminated what had been very small increases to K-12 education’s two largest programs—Title I and special education—and turned them into cuts.
“It’s a dirty shame,” Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, said of the final education budget.
With the addition of $1.6 billion in education-related hurricane relief that was also included in the defense spending bill, the department’s overall discretionary spending level will increase 0.02 percent, from $56.58 billion last year to $57.55 billion in fiscal 2006.
With the across-the-board cut, funding for the Title I program to help educate disadvantaged children fell by $28 million from fiscal 2005, to $12.7 billion for fiscal 2006. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act fell by $7 million from fiscal 2005, to $10.5 billion. The spending bill decreases the federal share of the costs of educating students with disabilities from 18.6 percent to 17.8 percent, representing the first drop in spending in that area in a decade, according to a Democratic congressional aide who deals with education.
“It’s really a travesty that we’re now not only on a clear trend to cut federal investment in education, but now we’re accelerating it,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying group.
President Bush was expected to sign the appropriations measures but had not done so as of Dec. 29.
The education spending bill includes a number of other cuts, including a 96 percent cut to the initiative known as comprehensive school reform, from $205 million to $8 million; a 45 percent cut to educational technology state grants, from $496 million to $275 million; a cut of nearly 50 percent to state block grants for innovative education, from $198 million to $100 million; and a 20 percent reduction to state grants for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, from $437 million to $350 million.
The additional 1 percent cut will also be applied to those programs, trimming their budgets even further.
Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said cuts were made to programs that weren’t working well to funnel more money to Title I and special education.
A third measure taken up during the hurried last days before Congress’ holiday break would also affect education. Called a budget-reconciliation bill, it would institute a five-year plan of spending cuts to reduce the deficit, including changes to the federal student-loan program for college that would result in savings of $12.7 billion over that period.
It also has a provision to open up a student-loan-forgiveness program—which had earlier applied only to public school math, science, and special education teachers—to all private school teachers who work at schools in which 30 percent of students are from low-income families, said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the NEA.
The reconciliation bill was so closely fought that it prompted Vice President Dick Cheney to return from the Middle East to be present to break a rare 50-50 tie on the measure in the Senate on Dec. 21. However, a procedural move by Democrats kept the measure from being sent to President Bush. The House will have to agree to the elimination of three small provisions before Congress’ action is final.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, blasted the deficit-reduction measure.
“This bill robs from the poor so Republicans can provide tax giveaways to the rich,” he said in a Dec. 21 statement.
But Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the committee chairman, praised the bill’s provisions that would increase loan limits for first- and second-year college students to $3,500 and $4,500, respectively, and increase graduate-student limits to $12,000.
“With this bill, we were able to reduce spending through changes in the way lenders operate, but at the same time we shielded direct impact to students and actually increased student opportunities,” Sen Enzi said in a statement.
While a preholiday December crunch in Congress is typical, longtime observers say it was unusual for lawmakers to wait so long to pass an education spending bill and for the outcome to be so uncertain. The 2006 fiscal year began Oct. 1, and the Education Department has been operating under a continuing budget resolution that kept its funding mostly at last year’s levels.
The end-of-the-year wrangling had bleary-eyed lawmakers taking votes in the wee hours of the morning. At one point, the Senate rejected the defense spending bill because it contained a provision to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. That rebuff sent aides scrambling to reformulate the bill to make it palatable enough to pass.
“We’re frustrated about the entire endgame,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.
“One of [federal lawmakers’] last acts was slashing funding for education,” she added, “and they did it in the middle of the night with big consequences for every school and district.”