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House Budget, Short on Education Details, Would Lock In Sequester

House Republicans unveiled their fiscal year 2016 budget this morning (Senate Republicans are slated to release theirs on Wednesday), and—spoiler alert—it looks absolutely nothing like the president's.

In addition to including partisan policy riders that would, for example, repeal Obamacare and overhaul the tax code, the nonbinding spending blueprint would cap discretionary spending for things like federal education programs at sequester level, making it extremely difficult to obtain any of the increases proposed in the president's budget. And it outlines even steeper cuts for fiscal year 2017 and beyond for a total overall decrease of $759 billion, or 14 percent below the current caps.

The broad overview of Republican spending priorities crafted by House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., is low on education details. Overall, the House plan includes $493 billion for discretionary spending across the federal government and would eventually balance the budget by making $5.5 trillion in spending reductions over the next 10 years.

As such, it asks each committee, including the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to recommend $1 billion in funding cuts for programs from fiscal 2016 through fiscal 2025.

The House budget does not provide agency-by-agency spending breakdowns, but those top-line figures stand in stark contrast to President Barack Obama's fiscal 2016 request, which was unveiled in early February.

Comparatively, the president's budget proposed a total of $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over 2015 levels.

The president's proposed increase for education—and other domestic programs—was the administration's first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that's officially now dominating budget talks: whether and how to end the across-the-board-cuts known as "sequestration." Back in 2013, Congress brokered a temporary deal to alleviate the cuts for both military programs and domestic ones, like education. But that deal expires this fall, and then the cuts kick back in full force.

On Monday, the president addressed the funding discrepancy ahead of the release of the House budget proposal. In a meeting with members of the Council of the Great City Schools, the president emphasized the significant toll sequester-level spending would have on early childhood and K-12 education programs.

"I can tell you that if the budget maintains sequester-level funding, then we would actually be spending less on pre-K to 12th grade in America's schools in terms of federal support than we were back in 2000," he said. "The notion that we would be going backwards instead of forwards in how we're devoting resources to educating our kids makes absolutely no sense."

When it comes to education, the House budget proposal focuses mainly on higher education and, specifically, how to restructure the Pell Grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income students. Like spending plans offered by the previous House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Price's budget would limit eligibility for the Pell program and freeze the current maximum award at $5,730 in an effort to avert funding shortfalls.

As for K-12, the House budget proposal zeroes in on rolling back the role of the federal government and eliminating duplicative programs.

Here's what Price's plan has to say regarding K-12 education:

"Our budget places a strong emphasis on returning the power to make education policy decisions to state and local governments, to families, and to students, rather than allowing choices to be made by bureaucrats in Washington. It eliminates unsuccessful and duplicative K-12 programs in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness. It promotes innovation and choices that provide for flexibility and innovative teaching methods."

The budget notes, for example, that a 2014 Government Accountability Report found 209  science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education programs in 13 different federal agencies at a cost of $3 billion annually.

Like the president's budget, the House Republican budget is a wish list of funding priorities and policies. Many of the big-ticket items, like repealing Obamacare, won't come to fruition.

Going forward, House and Senate lawmakers may begin a new round of negotiations in an effort to avert the spending limits set by the sequester, though those talks have yet to begin.

Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that sets federal spending for education programs, urged his colleagues to begin negotiations on a budget deal.

"I continue to hope for a budget deal ... so that hopefully we can have a more realistic allocation when the time comes," said Cole, who was part of the 2013 budget negotiations that helped avert the full force of the sequester cuts. "But absent negotiations at a higher levels, sequester is where we're at." 

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