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Federal Budget Update: K-12 Funding to Stay Flat—For Now

After Democratic leaders failed to enact a giant spending bill that would have included a modest boost for education, the U.S. Senate has agreed to pass a temporary measure that would freeze spending at current levels for most of the federal government, including the U.S. Department of Education, until March 4.

That means a new Congress, in which Republicans control the majority in the House and have a greater margin in the Senate, will get to decide on final spending levels for fiscal year 2011, which started back on Oct. 1. The government has been funded through a series of stop-gap measures since then, keeping funding at fiscal year 2010 levels. The latest of those expires Dec. 21, and Congress is expected to act by then.

The stop-gap measure includes something that education advocates desperately wanted: funding to make sure that Pell Grants at current levels as Congress continues to work out the rest of the budget. Higher demand for the grants, which help low-income students pay for college, has lead to a shortfall in the program. This was a key negotiating point, according to published reports.

But new money for education programs that was in the Senate's omnibus spending bill (including $550 million for the Obama administration's signature Race to Top program, $240 million for the Investing in Innovation Grants program, and $300 million for the Early Learning Challenge Fund) won't be included in the stop-gap measure.

And it's tough to say just how much money the new, more conservative Congress will want to provide for education. House lawmakers have said they want to roll back spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, although they haven't been specific about what they'd like to cut.

But, late last week, education advocates weren't feeling very optimistic.

"It's going to be terrible,"said Joel Packer, a principal at the Washington-based Raben Group, which represents the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition. "I think we'll be negotiating between a significant cut and a freeze. ... I would be hopeful that President Obama actually draws some firm lines in the sand and says if they send me a bill that cuts education [and other priorities] below [certain] levels I will veto."

What's more, the short-term extension makes it difficult for districts to plan their budgets going forward, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.

But most school officials aren't banking on a major boost from the federal government, she added.

"The message has been very clear with the new Congress: There's not going to be a ton of new spending, if any," she said. "Our members understand that, they're not budgeting around increases."

UPDATE: It looks like the stop gap measure contains some language on highly qualified teacher that my colleague, Stephen Sawchuk, covered in this excellent Teacher Beat post.

And a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education just put out this statement on the extension measure:

The [measure] makes a critical investment in Pell funding that we hope to see coupled with substantial investments in reform when Congress returns to these matters in March. We can't hit the pause button on serving children most in need. Delaying reform denies these students the education they need right now to compete in the global economy.

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