K-12 Funding, Legislation and the Political Platforms

The 2012 presidential and congressional elections will have an impact on the nation’s public schools and the direction of education reform, affecting policy and funding priorities, and future investments in education and workforce development. Numerous education and workforce budget and legislative decisions will have to be made by the president, his administration and Congress during the first session of the 113th Congress. These include the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), Workforce Investment Act, and the Vocational and Adult Education Act (Career and Technical Education), and addressing the budget deficit, sequestration and appropriations.

Several important legislative votes will have to be cast during the lame duck session of the 112th Congress. These most likely include sequestration, fundamental appropriation decisions to address the budget deficit, revenues and program budgets as well as a jobs bill, a farm bill and maybe even something on health care. One might say the plate is very full and a great deal is at stake.

First and foremost on most everyone’s mind both inside and outside the Beltway is sequestration. What are the implications? How much is going to be cut from each program? Unfortunately, there are no answers to either question at the moment. It is anticipated that if no alternative is passed the cuts will be between seven and nine percent. That comes out to about $4 billion in education cuts. This would mean a federal education funding at pre-2003 levels, with student enrollment up 5.4 percent and costs that have increased some 25 percent.

Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) included a provision in the farm bill that requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to address the cuts by providing a detailed account of just what the cuts would mean for all sorts of federal programs, from Head Start to Title I grants for districts to defense spending within 60 days of the signing of the bill. It requires OMB to give an accounting of teacher job losses, the number of students shut out of education programs and education resources lost to states and districts.

Unfortunately, at the present time, a vote on the farm bill is being delayed in the House. The bill will most likely go to the House floor after the November election during the lame duck session.

On July 25, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on the impact of sequestration on education and he stated:

“Based on the Congressional Budget Office’s projection that sequestration will reduce programs by 7.8 percent, here’s what we know will be at risk:
  • Title I funding would be cut by $1.1 billion, cutting off funding to more than 4,000 schools serving an estimated 1.8 million disadvantaged students. The jobs of more than 15,000 teachers and teacher aides would be at risk. Students would lose access to individual instruction, afterschool programs and other interventions that help close achievement gaps.
Funding for special education would be reduced by $900 million. That could translate into the layoffs of more than 10,000 teachers, aides and other staff who provide essential instruction and other support to 6.6 million children with disabilities.
On January 2nd, schools serving our military families through the Impact Aid program would have immediate cuts to their budgets. For example, the Killeen Independent School District in Texas would lose $4.6 million, directly affecting 18,000 children from military families.
In addition to these cuts at our Department of Education, other agencies will have to be forced to reduce spending in ways that will slow our nation’s educational progress.”

During the 4th of July holiday recess, Senate Republicans floated the idea of establishing House-Senate working groups as a way to forge a compromise plan to avoid massive defense budget cuts in the coming year. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) says that forming the bipartisan working groups would be a critical piece in getting lawmakers in both chambers on the same page, regarding the automatic defense cuts under sequestration.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) says the idea of the working groups has also 
been informally discussed among Democrats in both chambers, including by Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.). A group of 15 to 30 senators has been drafting seques-tration alternatives behind closed doors for the past month, but those talks have largely remained on the Democrat-controlled Senate side. Bringing in House members via the working groups could hasten those informal Senate talks into a tangible, bipartisan solution that can be brought to the White House.

One of the major stumbling blocks has been finding and agreeing on additional sources of revenue and agreement on which entitlement programs to reduce to meet the numbers required by the Budget Control Act.

Sequestration, coupled with budget cuts at the state and local level during these difficult economic times, will have a significant impact on programs and services. Many local districts have already made difficult decisions for the 2012-13 school year budget, given the implementation date for sequestration.

However, states and districts received a partial reprieve in a July 20, U.S Department of Education memo to the Council of Chief State School Officers from the Deputy Secretary Anthony Miller. It states, in essence, that states and districts will have the same level of federal funding for the 2012-2013 school year, and will have to worry about Congressional action prior to the 2013-2014 school year to fix the debt crisis and avoid sequestration.

The memo says, “If Congress does not act to avoid sequestration, and assuming the 2013 appropriations for the four advanced appropriated accounts [Education for the Disadvantaged (Title I, ESEA), School Improvement Programs (Title II, ESEA), Special Education (IDEA Part B), and Career, Technical and Adult Education — get distributed by formula to States and then to local school districts or other entities] are structured similarly to past appropriations (which they are under the pending House and Senate appropriations bills), the department will take the sequester from funds that would become available in July 2013 for school year 2013-14, not from the 2012 advance appropriations available in October 2012…. There is no reason to believe that a sequestration would affect funding for the 2012-13 school year…. Most other department elementary and secondary programs award funds late in the fiscal year for the following school year, either through a formula or following a competition for discretionary grants, so the impact of the BCA on these programs will not be felt until the 2013-14 school year as well. However, the major exception where the BCA sequester could reduce funds for the 2012-13 school year is the $1.2 billion Impact Aid program. Although most of the harm from the sequestration would not be felt in education programs until the 2013-14 school year, the damage from across-the-board cuts in that year would be severe.”

What is the conventional wisdom for a solution? Congress can act between now and the end of the calendar year by passing a compromise that begins to address the Budget Act deficit reduction requirements. This would avoid what it being called the “financial cliff.”

The best guess is that it will be difficult to come up with a compromise prior to Election Day. Chances increased for a solution during the lame duck session, with the passage of legislation extending the student loan interest rate and the transportation bill. A solution requires members to find a way to balance cuts and needed revenues to make it acceptable to the leadership in both houses. A second option is for Congress to agree on some short-term cuts during the lame duck and extend the date of implementation, with the expectation of agreeing on a long-term budget solution during the 113th Congress. Or, completely pass the buck to the 113th Congress. Ironically, Congressional members from both parties have denounced sequestration as an irrational move, but have done little to find common ground to solve the problem.

Another indication that congressional leaders have begun to work together occurred on July 31, when congressional leaders reached a short-term spending deal that will keep the federal government running for six months when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2012, averting a messy budget fight weeks before the election. The deal was announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio). This happened on the eve of a five-week Congressional recess, and indicates that some compromise may be reached on sequestration during the lame duck session to avoid the feared “fiscal cliff.”

Appropriations and the Lame Duck Session
Also, Congress still must make education appropriation decisions for FY 2013. These include whether to continue Race to the Top and i3, levels of support for Title I and IDEA, funding for Pell grants, and the structure of, and levels of, funding for numerous discretionary grant programs.

One can expect reductions in funding and/or elimination of some education and workforce programs.

Over the next four years, the administration and Congress will need to be considering continued funding to fully implement and continue the new education assessments under development by the two consortia that reflect the Common Core State Standards. A key question, which has two parts, is — will the administration, whomever is elected president, request funding from Congress to continue to support this effort or put the whole burden of funding on states and local districts? And, will Congress include appropriations to continue some level of support?

Other items on the agenda during the lame duck session that will convene after the November elections include such sticky wicket issues as expiration of the Bush-era tax rates, payroll tax cut and the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors. And one can’t ignore extending the debt ceiling. Did I say the plate was full? It is more like overflowing.

Investment in education should and will be an election issue. An operative question is at what levels and where will cuts be requested and made? One might anticipate deeper proposed cuts by a Republican than a Democrat, and then it will depend on who controls Congress and by what margins?

The Changing Face of Congress

The difficult appropriations process is coupled with some significant changes in the composition of Congress. This is not just who controls the Senate and the House, but who are the members of each of the bodies, what will be their priorities and who will serve on and chair the education authorizing, appropriations and budget committees, and relevant subcommittees.

Republican leadership of a committee in the Senate has a term-limit rule. If you are the ranking member of, or chair a committee for six years, you must relinquish that position unless you move from ranking member to the chair of that committee or vise versa.

If the Republicans gain the majority in the Senate, then Senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) will most likely again chair the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). But if the Democrats retain control, Senator Enzi is term-limited from continuing as the ranking minority member. His most likely successor is Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. Secretary of Education, governor and college president.

As always, the individual party caucuses determine committee assignments. But looking at the current membership and seniority of the Senate HELP, Appropriations and Budget Committees, indicates that there will be some changes as a result of retirements, new committee assignments and election results. We will not know who will serve until the caucuses meet in early January 2013. The House has a similar process.

In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee’s leadership should not change, with the ranking members being Senator Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). However, at least two Democrat members are retiring and two others are in very contested races for re-election, and on the Republican side, one member is retiring. The Senate Budget Committee will change since Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is retiring and is currently the chair of the Committee.

Similarly, there will be changes on the House side. The membership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will have some Democratic changes as a result of a death and three retirements. For the present, the ranking committee members should continue to be Congressmen John Kline (R-Minn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.).

At the moment, the House Appropriations Committee membership seems to be staying intact. The committee is chaired by Congressman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and the ranking minority member is Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).

The current House Budget Committee is chaired by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the ranking member is Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). There are a few contested races for committee members and one retirement, but these should not affect the workings of the committee.

It is important to note that the shape of any committee is determined by the majority party in each body and by the margin of that majority. Thus, if a different party in either house gains the majority or increases its majority, they gain seats on a committee. This, along with new committee assignments, can affect the focus, priorities and level of activity in any committee. So one will have to wait to understand what committee behavior may be.

Political Platforms and Education
Although the party platforms have not been finalized as of the date of this article, the education policy positions of the two leading presidential candidates are reasonably clear.

It is doubtful that there will be any significant change in President Obama’s education policy and strategy. His campaign will emphasize what his administration has supported and promoted over the last three-plus years, including Race to the Top, i3, STEM investments, charter schools, keeping the cost of college down, low student loan interest rates, early childhood education investments, education standards that stress career and college readiness, flexibility from rules through waivers for states and districts, accountability for teachers and principals (including some type of pay for performance), student accountability, elimination of discrimination and bullying, more oversight for for-profit postsecondary education institutions, simplifying student aid applications, and improved preparation and support for teachers and principals. One thing that is clearly on the administration’s agenda is better coordination between health, education and workforce development programs and legislation.

Governor Mitt Romney’s education agenda is entitled “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.” The sections of the plan are labeled: K-12 Choice and Innovation, Ensuring High Standards and Responsibility for Results, Recruiting and Rewarding Great Teachers, and A New Vision of Affordable and Applicable Learning in Higher Education. Some of the key issue areas covered include expanding school choice and competition, including vouchers and tax credits for those who send their children to private schools; expansion of digital schools and charters; increase transparency and get rid of federally mandated interventions for school improvement; create block grants for teacher quality; elimination of the highly qualified teacher requirement in NCLB; reducing regulation and penalties for for-profit postsecondary education institutions, and elimination of the rules on gainful employment; and allowing for private companies to be a provider of guaranteed student loans. The full text of the plan can be viewed here.

Some of the common themes in K-12 education between the two candidates include accountability, improved teacher training and recruitment, changes to NCLB and increased transparency. Clearly there are differences in the depth and breadth of the federal role in education, which are both philosophical and political. Also, there is an agreement on Common Core State Standards, but it is unclear about the assessments. Both candidates want a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but the content and approach are different.

Choice Is Up to the Voters

The election will provide some distinct choices for voters on education policy, investment and support of education programs, and how dollars will be structured and delivered to states and districts. This goes for both the presidential and congressional races. What Congress does about sequestration will ultimately be determined by the November elections and how much compromise can be achieved during the lame duck session. If not, it will be up to the 113th Congress. As was expressed earlier, there is a great deal on these elected officials' plate. The sooner it is completed the better at the state and local level, so they can provide quality teaching, learning and other educational services to students. 

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in Public Private Action, a consulting group. His work includes producing Fritzwire, the education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. Read Fritzwire, Education’s Water Cooler, everyday to keep up with what is happening in education around the nation and in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, write: [email protected].