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Education Funding

These Defunded Programs Highlight What Education Lobbyists Fear the Most

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 19, 2019 2 min read
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It’s spending season on Capitol Hill, and House Democrats want billions more for schools. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bringing back what were (to some) all the golden oldies.

In fact, several education programs that lost their aid in 2011 during excruciating fights over federal spending haven’t gotten their funding back since.

This underscores a harsh reality for lobbyists and others working on Capitol Hill: Once you lose funding for a program you like, it can be pretty difficult to regain it, even as the political priorities for education shift and swing back and forth. It also provides additional context to the recent viral spat over a proposed cut to Special Olympics aid; via Twitter, President Donald Trump affirmed his previous announcement that he was reinstating Special Olympics funding in his most-recent budget request, after originally seeking to cut it.

(In case you were wondering: Yes, the Special Olympics aid is an earmark.)

Quick refresher: As my colleague Alyson Klein reported during a bitter battle in the spring of 2011 with Republicans over federal spending, President Barack Obama agreed to eliminate spending on several programs at the Education Department that got more than $200 million in federal aid. Programs covering micro-learning communities, literacy, and libraries were among those that felt the budget crunch. And Teach For America lost its earmark, a general Beltway term for funding that flows outside the typical formula and competitive-grant process.

Here’s a chart with those programs that lost funding in 2011:

That sprawling argument over spending wasn’t a death knell for every program that lost its funding. For example, the Javits Gifted and Talented Program lost its $7.5 million in federal aid at the time, yet in the current fiscal year, Javits gets $10 million. That’s why we didn’t include it in the above chart.

And as part of those compromises, Obama got more funding for what were clearly his priorities. Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhoods got very significant funding boosts, for example.

“Almost every administration has come in with a priority area for education funding that they have focused on,” said Sarah Abernathy, a former Capitol Hill staffer who’s now the deputy director of the Committee for Education Funding, which supports more K-12 aid. “When or if they get a funding increase for that priority, there’s usually a decrease for other education funding areas.”

Now, big-ticket programs like Title I are not in danger of being defunded. Yet during that 2011 budget scrap, a big department program for training educators (found in Title II) lost a significant amount of money, and funding for that program is still far below where it was before that fight.

Here’s some more context for the chart: Teach For America members get federal support through AmeriCorps, and the two organizations have had a partnership since the mid-1990s. And libraries still get funding under the Institute of Museum and Library Services. So just because an earmark at one agency goes away doesn’t mean all federal funding for that program or policy area goes away. Still, in general it’s not an especially great feeling for supporters of those groups to lose any source of funding.

And even though two or more programs might serve the same general policy area, each program might have very strong partisans.

Photo: President Barack Obama finishes signing a two-week federal funding bill in the Oval Office at the White House in March 2011 in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)