The final budget deal funding the U.S. Department of Education through Sept. 30 of next year reflects the Obama administration's success in fending off House Republican efforts to scrap programs such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and School Improvement Grants, all administration priorities.
But not everyone is happy about the choice to continue those programs, some of which reflect the administration's emphasis on competitive grants to finance education initiatives. House Republicans had pushed to eliminate such programs to make room for big, $1 billion increases to major formula-funded programs for disadvantaged children and students in special education.
That would have made some superintendents and advocates for districts happy. The National Association of School Boards, for instance, preferred the House version of the bill, introduced in the fall.
So did Kirk Miller, the superintendent of the Bozeman public schools, a 5,800-student district in Bozeman, Mont. He said in an interview that "formula-driven money that keeps in place promises that have been made in the past to meet the needs of our students outweigh [the need for] newer programs like Race to the Top." Those competitive grant programs "are not a level-playing field for rural states like Montana to obtain funding," he added.
Instead, the two core federal programs that districts depend on--Title I grants for disadvantaged students and state money for special education--would get a tiny boost under a spending bill for fiscal 2012. Title I funding would get a $60 million increase on the $14.5 billion it received last year. And special education grants for states would get $11.6 billion, a $100 million increase.
The measure, which was passed Dec. 17 and is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature, would provide a small cut to the Education Department overall, about $153 million, bringing the department's total funding to $71.3 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2012.
The final bill, which would continue funding for the administration's favorite initiatives, was much closer to the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the measure, which level-funded most programs in the department, said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst at the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.
"I expected to see more compromises," Ms. Cohen said. Given the rhetoric around holding down federal spending, "I am just generally surprised at how well education did in the end," she added.
But it's unclear how the Obama administration's favorite programs will fare next year. The spending measure only funds the government through Sept. 30. The fate of Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation program, or i3, and Promise Neighborhoods may hinge on the next election.
If Republicans take the Senate, or the White House, those programs, which are largely unpopular with many in the GOP, may well go by the wayside.
Winners and Losers
The funding measure includes nearly $550 million for a new round of Race to the Top. Race to the Top was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as a way to reward states that embraced certain reform priorities. It is being continued under the budget legislation and, for the first time, the money will be open to school districts, as well as states.
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