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APPROPRIATIONS PROCESS STARTS, THEN STALLS: Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Passes Education Spending Bill, Future Prospects Uncertain

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The Alliance for Excellent Education and other high school reform advocates were particularly disappointed by the subcommittee’s decision not to fund the president’s request for a $150 million competitive grant program to “promote the whole school transformation of the high school experience..."

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s decision to postpone a scheduled June 12 markup of the fiscal year (FY) 2015 Labor, Health and Humans Services (HHS), and Education appropriations bill has left education advocates wondering whether the U.S. Congress will finish the bill before the start of the next fiscal year on October 1, or whether federal education programs will have to be temporarily funded by a continuing resolution until a more permanent measure could be passed—perhaps after the congressional elections in November. The delay is even more confusing in light of last December’s bipartisan budget agreement that was expected to make the appropriations process run more smoothly this year.

Before the markup was postponed, the committee was set to consider a bill reported out of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee that would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $45.06 billion in FY 2015, excluding Pell Grants. The total represents an increase of approximately $530 million compared to FY 2014, but it is roughly $750 million less than the amount President Obama requested in his FY 2015 budget.

“This is the bill that invests in America and allows us to respond to the changing needs of our country, all within a difficult budget,” said Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). “I am particularly encouraged that the bill directs funding to investments in high-quality early childhood care and education, which have been proven to have positive, lasting effects on children and families. The bill also invests in programs that support working families and contains funding that allows for an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, which is critical for expanding access to higher education. All in all, this bill takes a thoughtful approach to funding these critical programs because this bill funds America’s priorities; it is the bill in which we invest in our future.”

Under an agreement reached last December between Democrats and Republicans to break the appropriations process from gridlock, the discretionary spending total for FY 2015 was set at essentially the same level as FY 2014. As the subcommittee explains in a summary of the bill, any funding increases in the bill must be offset by cuts to other programs. Perhaps for that reason, many programs in the bill were funded at last year’s levels and several increases that President Obama requested in his budget were not met.

The Alliance for Excellent Education and other high school reform advocates were particularly disappointed by the subcommittee’s decision not to fund the president’s request for a $150 million competitive grant program to “promote the whole school transformation of the high school experience in order to provide students with challenging and relevant academic and career-related learning experiences” that prepare them for college and a career. Moreover, the subcommittee eliminated funding for the High School Graduation Initiative, the only federal program focused on high school reform. The subcommittee also chose not to fund Obama’s request for a new $300 million Race to the Top competition focused on improving the academic performances of students in high-poverty schools and a new $200 million competitive program to support educators’ use of technology and data. (More information on each of these programs is available at https://all4ed.org/?p=19417).

The subcommittee did provide a $100 million increase for Preschool Development Grants, another one of Obama’s priorities, funding the program at $350 million for FY 2015 but falling short of the $500 million the president requested in his budget. The Investing in Innovation Fund would receive $142 million—the same as last year—but less than the $165 million the president requested.

The two biggest formula grant programs each would receive small increases under the subcommittee’s bill. The bill would provide $14.43 billion for Title I grants to school districts, a slight increase of $50 million over the president’s budget request, which would have frozen funding for the program. Special education state grants would receive a $40 million increase, taking funding to $11.51 billion.

The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which focuses on students from birth through grade 12, would see its funding increased by $10 million to $168 million. Career and technical education state grants ($1.1 billion), federal TRIO programs ($847 million), and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) ($305 million), would each receive very small increases ranging from $3 million to $5 million. School Improvement Grants ($506 million), which target the nation’s lowest-performing schools, and Statewide Data Systems ($35 million) were funded at FY 2014 levels.

It is unclear why the markup by the full Senate Appropriations Committee was postponed, but senators from both parties believe it was to prevent votes on controversial amendments, including some related to the Affordable Care Act.

After learning of the postponement, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a member of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Committee and top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, took to the Senate floor and said that “being in the Senate and not being allowed to vote on amendments is like being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.” During his floor speech, Alexander said he had planned to offer an amendment in the full committee markup that would “[direct] the federal government to keep its sticky fingers off state standards and not to interfere with the hard work states are doing to raise expectations.”

The next step forward for the bill is unclear, but Harkin has said that he hopes the full committee will consider it after the July 4 recess. The U.S. House of Representatives has yet to take any action on its version of the bill and is not expected to do so until July at the earliest.

Additional details on the Senate bill, including proposed funding levels for specific education programs, are available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget15/15action.pdf.

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