Just prior to leaving Washington to celebrate the holidays in their home districts and states, members of Congress presented the nation’s schools and their students with a gift that was considerably smaller than in past years. Passing almost 3 months late, fiscal year 2006’s education spending bill cut the U.S. Department of Education’s budget for the first time in 10 years, reducing the amount available for discretionary spending by $624 million from FY 2005’s total. The $55.95 billion the department will receive reflects specific cuts made by Congress as well as an across-the-board reduction of 1 percent. (An additional $1.6 billion, designated for education-related hurricane relief, was included in the appropriation.)
The path to final passage was a rocky one. On November 17, 22 Republican lawmakers cited cuts to rural health care and education programs as their rationale for joining with Democrats in defeating the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill the first time it was brought to the floor. On December 14, following intense negotiations between members of the House and Senate, the House finally passed the spending bill, by a 215 to 213 vote, after rural health spending was boosted by $90 million. On December 21, the Senate cleared the bill by a voice vote, meaning no recorded votes were taken. That same day, the Senate passed the Defense Department spending bill, which included a 1 percent across-the-board cut in all federal discretionary programs except those serving veterans. President Bush signed the bill into law on December 30.
In voting for the final bill, some House Republicans noted that education programs would be squeezed even more if the bill were to fail a second time, as GOP leaders had threatened to return with a yearlong continuing resolution (CR).
“If the bill were to fail, we would end up with a CR, a full year’s CR, because you know we are not going home without something in this field,” said Representative Ralph Regula (R-OH), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. “These are important programs, over five hundred of them. What would happen with a CR? Well, there would be $800 million less for student aid, $278 million less for innovation and improvement programs, $178 million less for higher education programs, $94 million less for Title I programs, and $84 million less for special education programs. That would be a disastrous result that I do not think any of us on either side of the aisle would want to happen.”
Representative David Obey (D-WI), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, argued against this rationale. “The gentleman argues that we ought to vote for this bill because if we do not, then the majority will bring forth a continuing resolution which will do certain bad things. That is like saying, ‘Save us before we are irresponsible again.’ I really think we understand that what needs to happen to this bill is that it needs to be repaired, not further savaged; and that is what we want to see done … It is ironic that these actions come one week before Christmas. The holidays are supposed to be a time of generosity a time when Santa Claus fills children’s stockings with presents. Instead, this Congress is practicing Scrooge-onomics, gutting programs for children and those in need.”
Only a handful of programs received increases over last year’s appropriations level. The Striving Readers program, which was first funded in FY 2005, will receive $4.9 million more in FY 2006. Other programs receiving increases are Math and Science Partnerships (a $3.6 million increase), Advanced Placement ($2.4 million), and the National Writing Project ($1.2 million). Signature education programs such as Title I and special education, which have seen increases in past years, were cut by $27 million and $6.8 million, respectively. The maximum Pell grant award was frozen for the fourth consecutive year and will remain at its current level of $4,050.
Editor’s Note: This issue of Straight A’s contains a special insert that outlines the final spending totals for selected education programs designed to help middle and high school students as included in the final version of the FY 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill.