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President Obama to Propose Freezing Spending on Some Programs

President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget will propose freezing some $447 billion in discretionary programs. The change will save about $15 billion next year (or to put in perspective, a little more than the federal government spent on Title I grants to districts last year).

The freeze doesn't apply, apparently, to military and veterans programs, as well as programs such as Social Security. And it likely would not apply to programs covered under the health-care-overhaul bill, the future of which is pretty uncertain. And it won't apply to any spending put into a "jobs bill," such as the $154 billion measure the House approved late last year, which included some substantial education spending.

It's not clear yet whether, and which, K-12 education programs will be subject to the freeze, since it is for overall spending levels not individual programs. (We know that at least one program, the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, will be slated for an increase of $1.35 billion and opened up to school districts).

But it certainly sounds as if programs such as Title I grants to districts and special education, or smaller Education Department programs, such as TRIO, could be in the mix for cuts or freezes. And if they see even a small increase when everything else is level-funded, that will be a big deal, symbolically.

But, at the same time, symbolism may not mean much to cash-strapped districts, which are still making program and staff cuts despite the $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid. They also have to contend with a significant funding cliff, given the drop-off in state stabilization money, not to mention stimulus aid for Title I and special education. Of course, the administration has long made clear those were one-time increases.

This move also makes the proposal for additional Race to the Top money stand out even more, since it sounds as if it's likely to be just one of a very few boosts in the entire domestic, non-military fiscal year 2011 budget. And, if it applies broadly to K-12 programs, it's likely to make a potential jobs package, and increases for education proposed in a pending student-loan bill, all the more important.

Of course, it's important to note that President Barack Obama can propose spending freezes ... but Congress doesn't have to go along with them. So be sure and watch for what lawmakers, particularly the chairmen of the committees that oversee spending, have to say about all this, once the final details are released.

UPDATE: Check out Mike Petrilli's take on the budget proposal over at Flypaper. He seems to think that this is a move towards the political middle and a likely halt (or end) to the unprecedented increases for K-12. And Eduwonk thinks the spending freeze could slow down the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since money often follows education redesign. (Hat tip to Flypaper for the link.)

UPDATE 2: On a conference call with reporters today, Office of Management and Budget officials remained pretty vague about just which programs would be frozen. They did say that this is a "hard freeze", meaning no adjustment for inflation. But they said that some programs may still see increases, and stated explicitly that education is one of the administration's top priorities (clean energy research was listed as another). They also said, in response to a direct question, that Pell Grants would be "taken care of" in the budget. I guess that means no cuts for that program, which helps low-income students pay for college.

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