The U.S. Senate has just defeated a pair of federal budget bills that would have taken education spending in two very different directions, sending Congress back to the drawing board to figure out a spending plan for the rest of the current fiscal year.
Senate lawmakers, voting 44-56, rejected a House-passed bill that would have cut more than $5 billion from the U.S. Department of Education, plus $1 billion from Head Start, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But lawmakers also voted down a Senate Democrats' bill that would have provided modest increases for Title I, extended Race to the Top, and brought recently scrapped reading programs, including Striving Readers, back to life. The vote on that bill was 42-58.
Now, lawmakers will have to work together to come up with a compromise, and they don't have much time.
The government is operating under a stopgap measure that funds most programs (with some very notable education exceptions) at fiscal 2010 levels until March 18. Congress must pass another extension before that time or come up with a longer-term compromise, or the government will shut down.
The debate comes as President Barack Obama is turning up the heat on Congress to preserve education funding as it crafts a final budget.
"I want everyone to pay attention. Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education," the president told a crowd yesterday during a visit to TechBoston Academy, in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. "There's nothing responsible about cutting back on our investment in these young people."
"Fixing our schools will cost some money," Obama said. "Recruiting and rewarding the best teachers costs money. Making it possible for families to send their kids to college costs money. Making sure that some of the state of the art equipment all of you are working on ... that costs money."
During the Senate debate on the budget proposals, Democrats charged that the House Republican bill would hurt education programs.
"If you vote [for the bill] you're voting to slash Title I grants to school districts," which were cut by nearly $700 million under the GOP bill, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees education spending, said during debate. "You're voting to slash Head Start." He acknowledged that the nation needs to get its spending under control, but said such cuts are the wrong way to proceed. "Why would you want to take it out on kids?" he asked.
But Republicans said the Democratic bill wouldn't help the nation get its spending under control.
"No business would run the way we run the United States government," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. "We're facing a crisis, a debt crisis. ... Our crushing debt burden is like an anchor weighing down our economy."