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Back Home, Kline Talks Sequestration, Funding Flexibility, NCLB

Burnsville, Minn.

Education funding—including looming K-12 cuts, and especially, the need for flexibility with existing funds—took center stage at a round table for local superintendents, school board members, and others that U.S. Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, held back in his suburban Minnesota district yesterday.

Kline kicked off the Feb. 25 discussion by talking about what he called "the giant gorilla in the room": sequestration, a set of 5.3 percent across-the-board federal funding cuts set to hit just about every federal program on Friday unless Congress acts to prevent them.

Kline told the group that it's "highly unlikely" that Congress and the Obama administration would act to avert the cuts by the end of this week. (Kline didn't say this, but neither the House nor the Senate has come forth with any sort of bipartisan proposal to avert the cuts. Given that time is running out, his guess would appear to be on the money.)

But Kline isn't expecting that sequestration—which is slated to cut $1.2 trillion out of the federal budget over the next decade by trimming military spending and other parts of the federal budget, including education—would remain in place for long. In fact, he said, they might even be replaced with a broader long-term federal budget agreement later this year.

"My guess is that these cuts that are in law won't occur over 10 years," he said. "It is much more likely that there will be a replacement, prioritized cuts, or entitlement reform. It is also possible, I might say probable, that even for this year the cuts don't stay into effect." Many advocates believe that Congress could deal with the cuts when it finalizes the federal budget for fiscal year 2013, which started way back on Oct. 1. The government has been operating on an extension measure since then, which expires at the end of the month.

But district officials just beginning to work out their budgets for next school year, which is when the K-12 cuts would kick-in, are anxious for certainty.

"The sequestration piece concerns all of us," said Christopher Richardson, the superintendent of Northfield Public schools, near St. Paul. He's especially worried about funding for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, since the district will have to draw from other funds to cover the cost of the law's requirements, if the feds decrease their share.

In fact, making funding for the IDEA a major federal priority had a lot of support around the table. Kline asked for a show of hands to see how many of the folks at the round table would prefer that lawmakers put financing special education ahead of other programs, particularly new funding streams. Just about everyone was supportive of the idea. Their enthusiasm isn't surprising, given that rural school districts and suburban school districts are often more likely to rely on IDEA than other federal programs.

Many of the superintendents and other administrators in this politically purple congressional district—which supportedKline by a margin of 54 to 45.8 for his Democratic opponent, but also very narrowly supported President Barack Obama—say that changes to regulations governing existing funds could also go a long way towards helping districts get more bang for their buck.

Given all the talk of cuts at the federal level, "I don't believe that there will be new money," coming from the federal government, said Keith Jacobus, the superintendent of the South Washington school district. To help make up for that, he'd like to see less red tape around what federal education funds can be used for.

Kline appears to have taken that suggestion to heart. Last year he introduced legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have combined a variety of programs aimed at disadavantaged children into a single funding stream. For instance, schools would have been have been able to transfer funds between programs aimed at migrant and homeless students. But they would not be able to transfer them out of Title I grants for disadvantaged students. The idea won plaudits from advocates for districts, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association. But it got big blowback from some civil rights advocates, who worried that disadvantaged populations of students could be shortchanged under the plan.

The legislation, which was backed only by GOP lawmakers, never made it to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. And neither did another Republican-only bill approved by the panel last year, aimed at bolstering teacher quality. A separate, bipartisan measure aimed at improving charter schools was overwhelmingly approved by the House, but never taken up by the full Senate.

Jacqueline Kay Magnuson, a past president of the Minnesota School Boards Association, pressed Kline about the pace of reauthorization. "Is Congress going to lead, follow, or get out of the way?" she asked.

Kline said it's possible that the committee could work on the charter issue as separate legislation and combine the other two measures into a single bill. And it's clear he still has big concerns about the current system for getting around the law, the waivers from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act being granted by the Obama administration.

Kline said the waivers were met with "underwhelming enthusiasm almost everywhere" in part because they are temporary and don't provide lasting predictability for states and districts. "I think there's widespread dissatisfaction with the waivers," he said.

Some of the superintendents and others present said in interviews before the panel that they agreed with those concerns, but added that Minnesota's waiver is generally better than staying under the NCLB law as it is. Richardson, for instance, he would much rather an honest-to-goodness reauthorization than a continuation of the waivers. But he's grateful that Minnesota's waiver will allow his district to work toward a much more "realistic" set of goals than the NCLB law.

One other tidbit: Kline was asked during the round table whether he supports federal funding for vouchers. That's something Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who doesn't have a long record on education, has recently expressed an interest in. In response, Kline said the committee might take a look at proposals to allow some Title I money to follow students.

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