A spending bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 9 would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $67.8 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, a $500 million decrease from FY 2016. The bill, the FY 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, passed by a bipartisan vote of 29–1.
“This is the first bipartisan Senate Labor-HHS bill in seven years, and I want to thank Senator [Patty] Murray for her work on this bill. The bill eliminates more than a dozen duplicitous or unnecessary federal programs in addition to the eighteen from last year’s bill, and is $270 million less than last year,” said U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), chairman of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Blunt highlighted a change to Pell Grants that would expand eligibility and flexibility for an estimated 1 million students.
The bill would provide $11.95 billion—a $40 million increase—for special education and $15.4 billion for Title I grants to local school districts, which serves disadvantaged students. These grants represent a $500 million increase over last year and include funding for school improvement that is now consolidated within Title I. The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG) program—a new block grant program created under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—would receive only $300 million, less than the $500 million that President Obama proposed for the program in his budget and much less than the $1.65 billion authorized by ESSA.
Earlier this year, two key architects of the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), the committee’s top Democrat, sent a letter to the leadership of the House Appropriations Committee urging appropriators to allocate “at least the full $1.65 billion” for the SSAEG program “to allow for adequate formula distribution to states and to school districts consistent with the statute.”
In a statement, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, top Democrat on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that she and Blunt worked under “very tight budget caps” and expressed hope that Republicans and Democrats can work together to “restore additional investments in defense and non-defense priorities, which would allow us to improve this bill with additional resources for education and other priorities.”
The next steps for the bill are unclear at this point. The U.S. House of Representatives has yet to unveil its version of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) said that his subcommittee will likely vote on the bill by the end of the month, followed by possible consideration by the full House Appropriations Committee in early July. Cole was less optimistic that the bill would make it to the House floor for a vote.
FY 2017 begins October 1, but House Republicans are already talking about a temporary funding mechanism, called a continuing resolution (CR), that would maintain this year’s funding levels until the Congress passes a final spending bill, which probably would not happen until after the election. Because a CR would reflect funding decisions made prior to ESSA’s passage, it is unclear how funding would be allocated for the new or consolidated programs created under ESSA.
 The SSAEG program has three purposes: (1) provide all students with access to a well-rounded education; (2) improve school conditions for student learning; and (3) improve the use of technology to raise academic achievement and digital literacy for all students. If a district receives less than $30,000 in SSAEG funds, the district may choose to support only one of these purposes.