As you may have heard, Congress is desperately scrambling to reach some kind of an agreement on the debt ceiling before the nation goes into default on Tuesday. That means that education advocates are also desperately scrambling to influence the process and to ensure that lawmakers look out for K-12 interests in a final agreement.
The debt ceiling discussion presents a unique challenge for education advocates, because, right now, there aren't any actual numbers proposed for specific programs (like Title I grants for disadvantaged students), for K-12 as a whole, or even for the U.S. Department of Education.
So the number advocates are keeping their eye on is total federal discretionary spending, which must be balanced in any final agreement against taxes and mandatory spending (for programs such as Social Security and Medicare).
"It's all about the size of the box," said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition. "Before we get to deciding Title I versus special education versus [college access programs], it's what size is the box. ... How much money a program gets can be determined by how big the box is."
In some cases, education advocates have teamed up with folks in the health and civil rights communities, since education, labor, and health programs are all funded under the general heading of discretionary spending.
The Committee for Education Funding, whose members include the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of School Administrators, have already sent a letter to the leaders on Capitol Hill, asking them to continue to invest in education even as they try to gain control of the deficit. The group has also circulated news stories about the impact of education cuts around the nation.
The NEA is also launching its own lobbying effort, said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the teachers' union. The NEA is working with its state affiliates to target congressional leaders and moderate Republicans. For example, the union is working with its Ohio affiliate to lobby Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican. Other targets include Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
The American Federation of Teachers has also sent a letter opposing a House plan for raising the debt ceiling.
Pell grants are another particular area of concern. More background here. A coalition has formed to help look out for the program, which helps low-income students pay for college. The group includes the Children's Defense Fund, the National Council of La Raza, The Education Trust, and the KIPP Foundation.
UPDATE: The NEA and other public employee unions are running ads in the districts of some GOP lawmakers on the debt ceiling negotiations. The ad will run in the districts of seven house lawmakers and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Check it out below: