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Congress Approves Budget Deal That Puts Brakes on Sequestration

School districts chafing under the across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration are about to get  a reprieve: The U.S. Senate gave final approval, on a vote of 64 to 36 Wednesday to a broad budget deal that would ward off the vast majority of the impending cuts to K-12 education spending—and nearly every other federal program—for the next two years.

The bipartisan deal, which was negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would set spending levels at roughly $1.021 trillion this budget year. The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved the measure, so now it's headed to President Barack Obama's desk, and he's expected to sign it.

School districts say the fiscal breathing room can't come soon enough. "At least we're hopeful now, and we haven't been hopeful for a while," said David Pennington, the superintendent of the 5,400-student Ponca City school district in Oklahoma. He said the district—which has a high population of Native American students from a nearby reservation and receives federal Impact Aid to make up for lost tax dollars—was largely able to avoid layoffs last year. But, he said, "we weren't going to be able to do that going forward."

It's important to note that the agreement doesn't mean a forever-end to sequestration, just a temporary stay. The cuts are slated to be in place for a decade unless lawmakers are able to come up with a longer-term agreement on the right mix of taxes and spending. So, the agreement doesn't solve Congress' budget impasse for good, but it does give lawmakers a full two years to work through their differences.

To pay for the change, the plan includes a host of cuts to federal programs, including some changes to the student-lending program. For instance, non-profit organizations that service student loans no longer would be paid using mandatory (essentially, automatic) federal funding. Instead, they'd get their payments from the discretionary side of the ledger (where payments are determined every year by lawmakers).

So what does this mean for individual programs, such as Title I grants to help districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged students? It's too early to say. Lawmakers on the appropriations committees—which oversee spending—will have to fill in the details, deciding how much money to steer toward individual programs. They must finish their work by Jan. 15 to avoid another government shutdown.

Education advocates wasted no time in letting lawmakers know where they want most of the newly restored K-12 money to go: into big formula programs that go out to nearly every school district in the country to help educate poor children and students in special education, improve teacher quality, and bolster career and technical education. That could set up yet another spending showdown between lawmakers and the Obama administration, which is a big fan of competitive grants.

"Given the limited nature of federal funding, we caution against diluting the potential of federal investment by focusing on non-formula funding for a narrow set of recipients, or funding new initiatives at the expense of Title I and [special education]," wrote five big-name education advocacy groups in a letter sent today to every member of Congress. The groups include: AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Federation of Teachers; the Council of the Great City Schools; the National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association. Read the letter here.

The American Association of Educational Service Agencies, the National Rural Education Association, and the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition, along with AASA, sent a letter to lawmakers making a similar point.

"We are troubled with a continued effort to fund competitive-grant programs that create a federal education structure of winners and losers," they wrote. "Especially in rural communities, the lack of access to these critical funds exacerbates—rather than addresses—resource and achievement gaps."

(Politics K-12 translation: "Hey Congress, the biggest K-12 programs have been squeezed for over a year thanks to sequestration, and now it's being (mostly) rolled back. So please don't spend all that extra money on yet another round of Race to the Top, no matter how much the Obama administration is begging you to. We want most schools to be able to benefit from the changes to the budget, not just a select few.  And that goes double for rural schools, who might not be able to hire sophisticated grant writers to win these federal competitions.")

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