News Column

Education Left Behind in Budget Talks

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No matter who wins the congressional and presidential elections next month, lawmakers will return to Washington in November to sort out a tangle of tricky budgetary issues--and will face a legislative logjam that includes almost every major law that touches on education.

Fiscal concerns are almost certain to take center stage, both during a lame-duck session to be held right after the election, and come January, after the new Congress is sworn in. In addition to figuring out how--and whether--to head off "sequestration," a series of planned, across-the-board cuts, which the White House Office of Management and Budget projects says would mean an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education, lawmakers must make big decisions about a whole host of other long-term budget and tax issues.

The debate over those thorny questions is likely to consume the bulk of lawmakers' energy, and some observers say that could push the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the back burner for a year or more.

"If everything is the same going into next year, with control of the House, Senate, and the White House, we're in for a long, drawn-out year of what tax cuts do we reinstate, what parts of the sequester happen or don't happen," said Jason Delisle, a former aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who now serves as the director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. "We've been in this mess for a year now, and if we wake up after the election and nothing has changed," he said, it's going to become clear to lawmakers that "there's no easy way out."

Handicapping the Split

For now, it appears that the makeup of Congress is likely to stay relatively constant. Political prognosticators see little chance that Democrats will take over the U.S. House of Representatives, which flipped to Republican control in 2010.

As for the Senate, the chamber includes 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans, plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Earlier on in the election cycle, it seemed possible that the GOP could gain control of the U.S. Senate, but a Republican takeover now looks increasingly unlikely, according to a Sept. 27 analysis of polling data by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While the center's director, Larry J. Sabato, identified six races as toss-ups--in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wisconsin--he and other political experts are expecting that the chamber will remain in Democratic hands, unless there is a significant shift in the political climate between now and Election Day.

If that prognosis is right--and if President Barack Obama is able to hold on to the White House--that would leave the current political landscape virtually unchanged. So far, the combination of a GOP-held House, Democratic Senate, and Democratic White House has added up to protracted gridlock on a host of budget and policy fronts.

Higher Ed. Headaches

However, the focus on budget is likely to mean that college-access issues will get some significant airtime in the new Congress. For example, the federally subsidized student lending program is one of a number of so-called mandatory spending programs that lawmakers may be looking to trim or change as they deal with deficit spending.

Lawmakers must also chart a new future for the Pell Grant program, which offers grants to low-income students to enroll in postsecondary programs. The Pell program is facing a serious shortfall of roughly $7 billion annually, in part due to increased demand for the grants from more students seeking a higher education during the economic downturn. So far, Congress and the administration have yet to come up with a plan to put the program on firmer fiscal footing over the long-term.

Fiscal concerns have been an issue in both the congressional races and in the presidential campaigns, particularly since Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, selected U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the author of an austere budget blueprint, as his running mate. Mr. Ryan's plan seeks to tamp down domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 funding and policy, sees the future of federal spending in areas like education as the "starkest difference at play" in the 2012 campaign, said Kate Cyrul Frischmann, a spokeswoman for the senator.

If Republicans are able to defy predictions and take over the Senate, they will likely seek to scale back the Department of Education. Mr. Romney has said he would like to shrink the department, and possibly combine it with another agency. (Reading K-12 Tea Leaves If a Romney Victory, Oct. 3, 2012.)

But the big formula programs that all school districts depend on--Title I grants for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education--aren't expected to be first to the chopping block. Instead, GOP lawmakers are more likely to seek to scrap programs that have been at the heart of the Obama administration's K-12 agenda, such as Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation grant program, the School Improvement Grant program, and Promise Neighborhoods. Those programs were all slated for elimination in previous spending bills written by Republicans on the House appropriations committee--and they were restored after negotiations with the Democratic Senate.

Prospects for ESEA

The focus on postsecondary education and on spending issues means renewal of the ESEA could be pushed to 2014 or even beyond, particularly since most states have now been granted waivers from key portions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the law's much-maligned current version. Still, Republicans on the House education committee and Democrats on the Senate panel that oversees K-12 policy listed renewing the law among their priorities for next year, in emails to Education Week.

And, in the next Congress, lawmakers' to-do list is going to get even longer.

Nearly every major education bill is up for renewal, including the ESEA; the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program, the largest federal program for high schools; the Community Development Block Grant program, which includes child-care funds for communities; the Workforce Investment Act, which deals with job-training; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which covers special education; the Higher Education Act, which sets policy for the student lending program as well as teacher education; and the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research arm.

Many of those measures have yet to be considered by either the House or Senate education committees.

"I don't ever remember a situation like this," said Vic Klatt, who has worked on education policy in Washington for decades, including as a top aide to Republicans on the House Education panel, and is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations organization in Washington. "If Congress does not get its act together soon, it will become irrelevant to federal education policy. The administration will continue to manage policy in an almost unchecked manner."

But if the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress and the White House, lawmakers may choose to act quickly on ESEA reauthorization, because Republicans are unhappy with the administration's granting of waivers from portions of the NCLB law, which they see as usurping congressional authority, a Senate Republican aide said.

In that case, the final legislation could look like a package of measures passed by the House Education and the Workforce Committee last year, which would slim down the Education Department and get the federal government largely out of the business of school improvement. They would also require school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems based, at least in part, on student achievement.

Aside from teacher evaluations, that legislation tracks fairly closely with bills introduced in the Senate by a cadre of Republicans.

(c)2012 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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