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Senate Panel OKs Slight Funding Hike for Education Department

Two key K-12 formula programs—Title I grants for districts and state grants for special education—would see slight boosts in a bill approved on a party line vote Tuesday by the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 10-7, includes a $100 million increase each for Title I grants to districts, which are currently funded at $14.5 billion. And special education state grants would also see $100 million increase, on top of $11.6 billion this year&mdashfiscal year 2012.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education would get a tiny increase to $68.5 billion, up from $68.1 billion currently.

The Senate measure also includes a small boost for the administration's top K-12 priority, the Race to the Top program, which would increase to $600 million next year from roughly $550 million this. No word yet on whether that money would flow to states or districts, or whether it would be directed to early childhood education, higher-education, or K-12. UPDATE: A committee statement released after the markup says that a "significant portion" of the funds would be used for early childhood grants.

Republicans—who generally are not Race to the Top fans— were not thrilled about that choice.

"It is critical that federal education funding ensure that all students have access to a quality education," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the panel in a statement. "However, the Race to the Top program turns that notion on its head by investing in a competitive grant program that only benefits students in states that implement the administration's prescriptive education agenda."

Another winner? The Promise Neighborhood program, which helps communities pair education with non-profit services such as early childhood education. It would get $80 million, an increase over nearly $60 million this year.

Other key Obama administration education redesign initiatives would get level funding, such as the nearly $150 million Investing in Innovation grant program, which helps districts and non-profits scale up promising practices; the nearly $300 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which allocates grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs; and the nearly $534 million School Improvement Grant program, which helps turn around low-performing schools. UPDATE: Nearly $50 million of the Investing in Innovation grant money would go to a new research entity called "ARPA-ED. Sarah Sparks of Inside School Research fame wrote all about it here.

Shelby is also disappointed by the panel's decision to decrease funding for the Mathematics and Science Partnerships, which are funded at nearly $150 million. The measure would cut the program by $50.7 million.

But the bill does include an increase in the Fund for the Improvement of Education—which is essentially a big, flexible pot of money (some would say slush fund). The program would get about a $20 million increase. The administration has asked for extra money in FIE, which it says it wants to direct to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education.

The bill would direct a bigger share of the nearly $2.5 billion Title II state grants program—the biggest federal program aimed at teacher quality—to competitive grants. Under the bill, 5 percent of the funds, or roughly $130 million, would be competitive. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., applauded the increase. But the administration had hoped to see 25 percent of the funding become competitive. Last year, just 1.5 percent of the grants were competitive, giving national non-profit organizations that had previously lost federal funding, such as Teach for America and the National Writing Project, another shot at a grant.

So what happens next? The full Senate Appropriations Committee is supposed to consider the bill on Thursday, along with a bunch of other spending legislation for fiscal year 2013, which starts on Oct. 1.

But the picture gets a lot cloudier after that. The House committee that deals with spending has not yet considered its fiscal year 2013 bill for education. Last year, the panel proposed big, $1 billion increases for Title I and special education, while slashing nearly every Obama priority, including Race to the Top, SIG, and i3. It seems likely the scenario could repeat itself this year.

Plus, the entire education budget—and just about every other federal program—could be cut by as much as 9.1 percent, thanks to a deal lawmakers reached last summer to raise the debt ceiling. Those cuts are slated to go into effect in January 2013, unless Congress can somehow get its act together to stop them by coming with a larger deal on the right mix of taxes and spending.

Some other numbers:

•The Institute for Education Sciences, the department's research arm, would see a small increase to more than $618 million, including an additional $15 million directed at crafting data systems.

•Career and Technical Education would be financed at $1.13 billion, the same level as this year.

•A new comprehensive literacy education fund championed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, would get nearly $160 million, the same level as this year.

•The Head Start program would get a $70 million increase, on top of its current $8 billion budget.

•Pell Grants, which offer money for low-income students to attend college, would get enough funding to increase the maximum grant from $5,550 currently to $5,635.

The spending measure did not include a provision that would extend a change to the highly qualified teacher provision in the No Child Left Behind Act to make it easier for teachers in alternative certification programs to be considered highly qualified under the law. Congress attached a temporary tweak to the language in a spending bill back in December 2010, but it's slated to sunset soon. More here.

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