K-12 Spending, Race to the Top Extension Still On Table
When the dust settles from the midterm elections, federal lawmakers—the re-elected and losers alike—will head back to Washington for a lame-duck session with a long to-do list that could have broad implications for education policy over the next year.
Congress left town without finishing the U.S. Department of Education’s spending bill for fiscal 2011, which officially began Oct. 1. Right now, all programs in the department are being financed at fiscal 2010 levels through a stopgap measure that expires Dec. 3.
Lawmakers have several options for resolving the looming budget question, including the fate of Obama administration priorities, in a session that could begin as early as mid-November.
Advocates say their game plan may hinge on the outcome of this week’s midterm elections, which were expected to bolster Republican numbers in Congress, and could result in the GOP taking control of one or both houses of Congress, said Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.
Over the summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee and a House appropriations subcommittee approved separate versions of an education spending measure for fiscal 2011.
It’s unclear whether Congress will pass the fiscal 2011 education spending bill as a standalone measure, or whether lawmakers will decide to combine it with a number of other appropriations bills in an omnibus spending measure.
And it is not certain that the spending bills will even be completed in the lame-duck session, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education, a lobbying coalition in Washington.
Republicans emboldened by the election results could put pressure on Democrats to hold off on passing bills until January when the GOP could flex new legislative muscle. Congress could also pass a yearlong, stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, which would finance most programs at 2010 levels.
Each chamber’s current version of the spending bill would extend for another year the Obama administration’s signature education initiative—the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program—which rewards states for making progress on teacher quality, common academic standards, assessments, and other areas.
The Race to the Top program was initially created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed last winter and covered just two years.
But while both versions would extend the program, neither would give the administration the $1.35 billion it asked for in its budget request. Released last February, it also sought to open the program up to school districts.
The Senate included $675 million for the program and would allow school districts to be included in the grant competition. The House panel would fund it at $800 million. It is unclear whether the House would also allow districts to participate, since many of the details of that chamber’s bill haven’t been released publicly.
The Senate bill also includes a new $300 million for an Early Learning Challenge Fund to encourage states to improve their early-childhood education programs. Democratic leaders tried to get a much bigger version of that program into a bill to overhaul the student-loan program, but it was stripped out. It is uncertain whether the House bill includes a similar spending item.
It’s also unclear how Congress will cope with a $5.7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend college. The program faces a funding gap in part because more students have been returning to school to boost their skills during the economic downturn. The shortfall could be dealt with through the education bills, if they are passed in the lame-duck session.
Lawmakers may also take up reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. The proposed $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., was passed by the Senate in August. The House bill passed out of committee but has not been taken up for a vote by the full chamber. (“Conservative Candidates Take Aim at Federal K-12 Role,” July 14, 2010.)
Some advocates don’t want the Senate measure to pass unchanged because the 10-year bill would offset its proposed spending increases in part by cutting $2.2 billion from food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or snap. Both the food-stamp and school meals programs are run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The School Nutrition Association, in Oxon Hill, Md., is hoping the House will take up the Senate’s version of the bill.
“Our biggest concern is the longer the [wait], the tighter the financial constraints for Congress and for the program,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the association.
Congress may also consider a variety of tax-related legislation, including extending the so-called teacher tax deduction, which helps educators purchase supplies for their classrooms, and the Build America Bonds, which was created under the ARRA and which some districts have used to help pay for school facilities.
Lawmakers could also take up the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which helps students cover the cost of college.
But there’s one piece of highly anticipated legislation that Congress almost certainly won’t be taking up in the lame-duck session: the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In March, President Barack Obama called on Congress to reauthorize the law this year, releasing a blueprint for its overhaul, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff spent hours reaching out to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to try to get support for the renewal.
Lawmakers in both chambers held hearings on issues including teacher quality, academic standards, and efforts to turn around low-performing schools. But neither the House nor the Senate education committees introduced a bill, and further action isn’t expected until 2011 at the earliest.