Budget agreements may seem far away and deep in the policy weeds, but they cut through the rhetoric and posturing to point the direction where things are actually going to go. Last night, January 13, House and Senate agreed on a federal spending compromise for the rest of the fiscal year—through September. Assuming that Congress passes what the negotiators decided, the education spending provisions are a relief for supporters of public schools.
According to Alyson Klein, who covers federal policy for Education Week, the Title I formula program that allocates federal funds to support school districts that serve a large number or high concentration of poor students and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will receive increases, almost reaching the level before Sequestration reduced their funding. Title I will get $14.4 billion, slightly under the $14.5 billion it received in FY 2012. Special education grants will be $11.5 billion, just slightly less than the pre-Sequestration, FY 2012 amount of $11.6 billion. Keep in mind that both of these programs have been perennially under-funded. When Congress passed IDEA, for example, the federal government promised to pay scho0l districts 40 percent of the costs of implementation; Congress has never covered more than 19 percent of the cost— and usually less than 19 percent. However, this year it is a relief to see Congress pretty much undoing the damage of Sequestration to these programs that cover essential programming in schools across the country at a time when state budgets continue to be austere.
While Congress will fund—at $250 million—another round of Race to the Top early-learning competitive grants for states, Congress does not intend to allocate $750 million that the President had requested for development grants to states to expand preschool programs for 4-year-olds. The choice not to fund the President’s pre-school initiative will be a disappointment for all who know the importance of early education.
However, Congress has agreed to boost Head Start by $1 billion, bringing that program’s allocation back up to $8.6 billion, with $500 million of that going to strengthen early Head Start. Head Start had been devastated by Sequestration, which eliminated 57,000 children from participation last year. Additionally Congress will allocate $$2.4 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants, adding $154 million over last year’s investment in this program that helps states support child care assistance for families in need.
Public schools on already poor and isolated Indian Reservations have been devastated by Sequestration’s cuts to Federal Impact Aid. The new budget agreement adds $64 million over last year’s appropriation to bring Impact Aid spending to $1.3 billion.
Congressional budget negotiators did not include funding for the President’s request for $1 billion in “Higher Education Race to the Top” competitive grants to motivate states to create accountability at the college level for raising graduation rates while holding down tuition.
The spending agreement also significantly revises the competitive School Improvement Grants (SIG). Congress has removed the requirement that schools choose from among very controversial, prescribed “turnaround” plans: firing the principal and half the staff, closing the school, turning the school over to a charter management or educational management organization, and implementing other specified reforms such as merit pay or lengthening the school day or year. The language in the spending agreement would, according to Alyson Klein in Education Week, “offer schools and states two new choices including the chance to try out any school improvement strategy that’s been proposed by the state and gotten a green light from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” or a fifth model, “‘whole school reform,’ which would allow schools to partner with an outside organization that has a proven track record in turnarounds.” Klein describes Congressional revision of SIG as “a blow to the Obama administration, which had stood stubbornly behind its four models, even as student outcome data from the SIG program showed it had a mixed track record.”
Budget negotiations are one place where we all need to be very grateful for the inside-the-Beltway groups that represent the interests of teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and the children they serve. Here is how NEA describes the priorities NEA and its partners pushed for: “To help mitigate the damage, this week NEA joined the American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, Council of the Great City Schools, and National Schools Boards Association in urging the appropriators crafting the Labor-HHS-Education and other funding bills… to make undoing the cuts in core formula grant programs that benefit students most in need, like Title I and IDEA, a top priority.”