News Column

Key Obama K-12 Programs Won Out in Budget Deal

Dec 21, 2011

Alyson Klein

students

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.

Lawmakers also included language in the bill specifying that this round of Race to the Top must have a "robust early education component," although it is unclear whether the department will continue to have a separate competition for early-childhood education, as it did this year.

And the legislation includes $160 million for a new literacy initiative, serving children from birth to grade 12. The new money would come less than a year after lawmakers eliminated funding for a host of reading and writing programs, including the $250 million Striving Readers program, as part of an effort to slash overall domestic spending.

Funding for the Promise Neighborhood program, which provides grants to communities that want to pair health and other wraparound services with education, would double to $60 million, from nearly $30 million.

Separately, the Head Start early-childhood program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was also a winner in the 2012 budget, getting a $424 million boost, to $8 billion.

Other key administration priorities received level funding in the Education Department budget. The Investing in Innovation program, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations to scale up promising practices, would get nearly $150 million, the same as last year. And the School Improvement Grant program, or SIG, which helps turn around the nation's lowest-performing schools, would be flat-funded, at $534 million.

But the Teacher Incentive Fund, which allocates grants to help districts establish pay-for-performance programs, would be cut, from nearly $400 million last year to nearly $300 million in fiscal 2012.

Lawmakers were able to keep the maximum Pell Grant at $5,550, by making a major overhaul to some of the central provisions of the program, which helps low-income students cover the cost of higher education. For instance, lawmakers slashed the number of semesters students are eligible for grants to 12, from 18. And Congress lowered the income level that automatically qualifies students for a Pell Grant to $23,000, from $30,000.

The 2012 spending measure would also scrap a few programs. It provides no financing for the Foreign Language Assistance Program, which was financed at $27 million in fiscal 2011. Other casualties include the Teaching American History program, which received $45.9 million in fiscal 2011, and Voluntary Public School Choice, which received $25.7 million.

Second Life

But some high-profile nonprofit organizations that were cut in the fiscal 2011 budget would have a second chance at funding under the new spending bill.

The new spending measure includes a $28.6 million set-aside for literacy programs in a flexible pot of money called the "Fund for the Improvement of Education," which got $65 million this year. At least half that new literacy money is supposed to go to school libraries in low-income communities. That could help make up for the loss of $19 million last fiscal year for the Literacy Through School Libraries.

The rest of the flexible aid can go to national nonprofit organizations that provide books and other literacy activities to low-income communities. That description is a close match for Reading is Fundamental, a book-distribution program that lost $25 million in federal funding last year.

"It seems obvious that they had a specific program in mind," Ms. Cohen said. But the language isn't unusual--education programs that are scrapped often get a second life in the Fund of the Improvement of Education, she added.

Similarly, the spending measure would set aside 1.5 percent of the $2.5 billion Improving Teacher Quality State grants for a competition for teacher-quality programs. The department ran a similar program this year. The funding would give national nonprofit organizations that lost federal aid in fiscal 2011, such as Teach For America and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, another shot at a grant.



Source: (c)2011 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)


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