Despite new momentum lately, it doesn't look like Congress will get around to renewing the No Child Left Behind Act by the end of this year. But it's (almost) a sure bet that lawmakers will be looking to reshape the programs in the U.S. Department of Education, either by eliminating some, or by consolidating smaller programs into broader funding streams.
There are obviously lots of way to tackle consolidation. The administration and House Republicans have each sketched out their plans.
And late last month, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced a bill that would streamline nearly 60 education programs into two broad formula grants. One would be aimed at improving teaching and learning, and the other would seek to bolster student health and safety.
Districts could take money out of the pot aimed at improving teaching and learning and shift it to the one aimed at improving student health and safety, and vice-versa. They could also take money from those two programs and shift it into Title I grants for districts, which help cover the cost of educating disadvantaged kids.
But, importantly, districts would not be allowed to take money out of Title I grants for disadvantaged students and put it in either of the other two programs. And other funding aimed specifically at special populations of students would be protected. Districts would not be allowed to move around money aimed at migrant students; ;neglected or delinquent students; English-language learners; Indian, Native Alaskan, or Hawaiian students; homeless students; rural education; or impact aid.
Under the Burr bill, the Fund for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning would focus on helping districts recruit and train teachers and principals. The money also could be used to boost instruction in reading, math, science, social studies, the arts, and other subjects. And the Safe and Healthy Students program would bolster after-school programs, physical education, counseling, emergency preparedness, and parent engagement.
The Teaching and Learning program would combine other targeted programs including Improving Teacher Quality State grants, the Math and Science partnerships, Foreign Language Assistance, Transition to Teaching, the Teacher Incentive Fund, Teaching American History, School Leadership, Advanced Placement, Ready-to-Learn Television, Excellence in Economic Education, Arts in Education, Cooperative Education Exchange, and Smaller Learning Communities.
The Safe and Healthy Student program would consolidate programs including the 21st Century Community Afterschool Program, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Alcohol Abuse Reduction, Physical Education, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Fund for the Improvement of Education (which is often used for lawmakers' pet projects).
All of the money in these new, broad programs would go out by formula—districts wouldn't have to compete for it.
These kinds of changes are always controversial. Some folks like the idea of more flexibility, particularly in tight budget times. Others worry that particular strategies funded by individual programs (such as afterschool programs) will go by the wayside if districts aren't directed to spend money on them. And nearly every program in the department has at least one congressional champion.
Burr isn't the first to come up an idea for streamlining the department. The Obama administration included a plan for consolidation in its blueprint for revising the NCLB law (the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), which was released back in March 2010. The administration included a similar proposal in its most recent budget request, which sought to combine 38 programs into 11 broader funding streams, many of which would be allocated competitively. (That's one big difference from the Burr bill, which would use formula, not competitive funds.)
And over the summer, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved a pair of bills aimed at streamlining the department and providing funding flexibility. One bill would scrap more than 40 education programs, including many of those that Burr would slate for consolidation.
The other would give districts lots more leeway to transfer federal funds from one program to another. For instance, a district could take money aimed at homeless kids and spend it on teacher training, if it felt that was the best way to use it. Advocates for school superintendents like that bill, but civil rights advocates attacked it, saying it could divert money from the kids most at risk.
The Burr bill would appear to side-step that particular issue, since districts couldn't take money out of programs meant for a particular group of students (such as English-language learners) or out of Title I grants for districts.