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District Advocates Favor House Education-Spending Bill

If you were a school district official, would you rather see:

(a) Big increases for key formula programs, or,

(b) Continuation of the Obama administration's favorite competitive-grant reform programs (Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, School Improvement Grants, and Promise Neighborhoods)?

For some local school officials and their advocates, the answer is the first.

This matters, because lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have laid out very different visions for the future of education spending.

A House bill introduced last week would cut funding for 31 education programs, including some of the Obama administration's highest priorities. But it would include a $1 billion increase for Title I grants to districts that would bring the program to $15.5 billion. And there's a $1.2 billion hike for special education, which would bring the program to $13.75 billion. There would also be an increase for Head Start of $540 million, bringing it to nearly $8.1 billion.

The Senate bill would flat-fund those key formula programs, with Title I getting $14.5 billion, and special education getting $12.5 billion. But it would continue funding for Race to the Top, i3, and SIG at last year's levels.

That sets up an interesting political dynamic. District officials, who are non-partisan but often side with Democrats when it comes to education spending, prefer the formula hikes in the House bill. They'd rather see money for special education and Title I than funding for the Obama administration's reform priorities, which are competitive grant programs that don't go to eveyone.

"We know that Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant program have benefitted some of our school districts," said Deborah Rigsby, the director of federal legislation for NSBA. "But when you look across the board at what benefits the greatest number of school districts it's [Title I and special education]. ... The House proposal is definitely something that's consistent with what our membership has voiced support for over the years."

Benny Gooden, the president-elect of the American Association of School Administrators, agreed.

"Anything that either cuts or level-funds Title I and IDEA is going contrary to where we really ought to be in this country," said Mr. Gooden, who serves as the superintendent of the more than 14,000-student Fort Smith, Ark., school district, where 75 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. He cautioned Congress against "level-funding programs that are your core values" in order to fund "what I would call pet initiatives, new initiatives" that require districts to compete.

"Not everyone is going to win," those grants, he said. And the winners aren't likely to "be the places that have the greatest need." The neediest districts are "not even going to be an also-ran."

Other advocates see a mixed bag.

Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advoacy for the National Education Association, said the 3.2 million-member union likes aspects of both bills.

"We think that both bills have really important pluses that we would like to see merged into one bill," she said. The increases for Title I, special education, and Head Start. "are really big numbers. We haven't seen numbers like that proposed in an education-funding bill in a really long time. It shows really good recognition of the importance of funding those critical programs for our students who are most in need. ... We recognize that the large competitive-grant programs are not funded. We have always talked about the importance of funding the formula grants."

But NEA likes the way the Senate handled the Pell Grant program. The Senate bill would retain the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500 without changing eligibility requirements. The House bill would keep the maximum too, but students who attend college less than part time would no longer have access to grants.

And the Senate bill would continue to fund SIG, which Kusler said is key to helping low-performing schools improve. Plus, the union is concerned about the House's decision to eliminate some targeted programs, such as Elementary and Secondary School Counseling (which the Obama administration actually sought to consolidate into a broader funding stream). The union is also worried about some policy riders to the House bill, including one that would be a huge blow to the recently passed health care overhaul law.

For his part, Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said now is not the time to roll back funding for core reform initiatives."

"Its baffling that some members of Congress would abandon reform in favor of programs that do not challenge the status quo. With a quarter of our students dropping out of high school and the nation ranked 16th in the world in college completion, the status quo will not provide Americans with economic security in the new global economy. Programs like Race to the Top, i3 and SIG are supporting real reform at the state and local level. This is not the time to stop. We want to work with Congress to keep reform moving forward, to protect children at risk and to invest in our children and our future."

UPDATE: A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the committee that deals with K-12 spending, had this to say about the House bill:

"It's nice that House Republicans are finally recognizing the need for additional federal resources to benefit our nation's students. Only months ago, almost every Republican in the House, including [Rep. Dennis R. Rehberg, R-Mont., the chairman of the House committee that oversees education spending] supported H.R. 1, a bill that would have cut almost $700 million from Title I.

"In 2009, every House Republican also voted against the Recovery Act, which added $10 billion for Title I and $11.3 billion for IDEA. And just over one year ago, Chairman Rehberg voted against the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, which has helped keep more than 100,000 educators in schools throughout the United States.

"As for the increases for Title I and IDEA in Chairman Rehberg's FY 2012 Labor-HHS bill, they are more than offset by cuts to the Pell Grant program that will affect students in virtually every school district in the country. His bill also completely eliminates funding for all of the Administration's reform programs, as well as School Improvement Grants, Math and Science Partnerships, Striving Readers and a host of other important programs that provide grants to states and LEAs."

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