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Troubled Path Forward for Education Spending Bill

Remember when congressional appropriators were adamant about this year being the year they would finally pass a real spending bill for the upcoming federal fiscal year?

Well, it's safe to say the odds of that actually happening are nil.

First, let's take stock of how far each chamber has advanced its fiscal 2015 appropriations bills: The House made the most progress, passing six (or half) of its spending bills. The appropriations committee itself cleared every spending bill except for the education funding proposal, which hasn't yet made it out of subcommittee. The Senate, however, hasn't passed a single spending bill cleared by the appropriations committee, which itself passed only seven of the 12 bills to come out of subcommittee.

The immigration debate, coupled with international crises in Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East, hampered progress in both chambers. And the looming midterm elections may have prevented some appropriators from pushing the spending bills toward the finish line as aggressively as they normally would have—an attempt to give political cover to lawmakers in tight races worried about casting unpopular votes. 

But the biggest enemy of the appropriations process now is the calendar.

Congress is open for business for seven more legislative days before lawmakers jet back to their home states for the annual five-week summer recess beginning July 31. When they return to the Capitol, they'll have just 11 legislative days before the beginning of the next fiscal year, Oct. 1., after which they'll disperse again, many frantically back to their campaign teams to make one last push before midterm elections.

(And then just 15 legislative days before the end of the year. But, really, who's counting??)

Funding Impact

So what does all this mean for federally funded education programs?

Well, not a whole lot—at least not immediately, anyway. Remember, almost every federal education program is forward-funded, meaning appropriations from a spending bill wouldn't technically flow to states until about July 2015.

There are two important exceptions to that rule, however: Impact Aid and Head Start, which are both current-year-funded.

Impact Aid districts get extra money from the federal government to make up for lost tax revenue due to federal land, or the cost of educating additional students that wouldn't be in the district if it weren't for the feds (such as the children of military personnel or students from a Native American reservation). You might recall that prior to sequestration going into effect, policymakers were particularly concerned about Impact Aid schools since they had little to no time to prepare for the steep funding cuts.

Head Start is also current-year-funded, and even though a stop-gap spending bill creates some uncertainty for these programs, neither of them are likely to face significant cuts. That's especially true for Head Start, which the Senate's education subcommittee spending bill and the White House budget request both targeted for funding increases as part of the Democrats' push to focus on early education.

Path Forward

But still, how will Congress eventually OK a spending bill, and will that have ramifications for funding education programs in future school years?

What will likely happen, predicts education funding expert Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, is that Congress will pass a continuing resolution to fund federal programs through December. A continuing resolution, for any appropriations newbies, is a stop-gap spending measure that funds federal programs at their current level for a short-term period.

After that, lawmakers have three obvious choices with varying degrees of impact for federally funded education programs:

• First, Congress could extend the continuing resolution for the entire year. This option shouldn't worry education advocates too much since programs would be funded at the level they are now. While there would be no funding increases, there at least wouldn't be any funding decreases.

The one problem with this option, Packer pointed out, is that there are at least a couple of programs that absolutely need additional funding, like the nonprofit student loan servicer and those that are dealing with the influx of unaccompanied minors streaming into the United States from south of the border. (The later may be taken care of if Congress passes an emergency supplemental funding bill that President Barack Obama asked for July 8.)

A year-long continuing resolution also doesn't allow Congress to update any policies that may need fixing.

• A second possibility, said Packer, is an extension of the continuing resolution from December until February. That option largely depends on the outcome of the midterm elections.

If Republicans take over the Senate, they may jump at the chance to finally take a meat cleaver to a slew of programs they've had their eyes on for a while, and attempt to pass something akin to the austere proposals put forward by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. That would be bad news for education advocates.

But GOP leaders may also, and just as easily, say no thanks to having their first task while in control of both chambers be crafting a massive spending bill 

• The final option is that Congress passes an omnibus bill in a lame-duck session. It's unlikely, but Packer noted that lawmakers were able to do pass an omnibus bill for fiscal year 2014, and already there's been a lot of groundwork laid on appropriations bills this year. Plus, this option would allow lawmakers to increase or decrease funding for certain programs, as well as tinker with policy issues.

A path forward for a spending bill should materialize sometime in late September, so stay tuned.

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