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What Does Congress's Budget Squabble Mean for Education?

If you've been paying attention to Congress this week, you've probably noticed lawmakers feverishly trying to come to an agreement about how to avert a government shut-down, which could occur Dec. 11 when the current stop-gap measure that's financing the U.S. Department of Education is set to expire.

Readers of Politics K-12 know this fiscal scramble all too well.

Because of across-the-aisle and intraparty bickering, it's been years since Congress funded the government under the normal appropriations process by passing 12 separate agency funding bills. And this year proved no different.

So how might lawmakers go about this current fiscal fiasco and what will it mean for federally-funded education programs?

If lawmakers are able to quickly overcome existing squabbles about funding levels and various policy riders, they have a shot at combining all the appropriation bills and passing them as one, big package, known as an omnibus budget. If they aren't able to do that, the easiest way to keep the government running is by simply extending the current spending levels, known as a continuing resolution, or CR.

While a CR wouldn't have any impact on funding levels, an omnibus would allow lawmakers to tinker with spending for various programs, like the $14.4 billion Title I grant for schools with large proportions of low-income students.

An omnibus also allows lawmakers to toy with policies, and could potentially zero out some of the Obama administration's competitive grants, like Race to the Top, which were never written into law in the first place.

Most budget experts, however, don't expect funding levels or policies to change drastically, should Congress decide to pass one big giant spending bill.

"Yes, there could be some modest increase in preschool development grants, Title I or [special education spending]--literally a few million dollars," said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based group that advocates for increased funding for education programs. "On the flip side, there could be more cuts, but I don't expect huge increases or huge cuts."

Meanwhile, a government shutdown, which few budget experts expect to happen, wouldn't have much of an impact on K-12 programs. Most are forward funded, meaning schools that rely on them already have their federal money in hand for this school year. Two major exceptions include the Head Start program, which provides early childhood services for low-income families, and the Impact Aid program. (Impact Aid funds schools that miss out on local tax revenue because of the federal government, either because they are located on federal land, such as army bases and Native American reservations, or have a lot of federally-connected kids.)

Heading into the weekend, however, the plan with the most traction seemed to be a hybrid of the continuing resolution and the omnibus, which swiftly garnered the very inside-the-Beltway name "cromnibus." The plan, which would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, is slated to be unveiled Monday.

Will education see an increase? Will any programs be eliminated?

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