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Congress Clears Budget that Locks in Sequester-Level Education Funding

Congress passed a fiscal year 2016 budget on Tuesday that locks in sequester-level funding, ensuring no new money for federal education spending and outlining further cuts to federal education programs over the next decade.

"This balanced budget will provide Congress and the nation with a fiscal blueprint that challenges lawmakers to examine every dollar we spend," said Senate budget chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo. "Americans who work hard to provide for their families and pay their taxes understand that it's time for the federal government to live within its means, just like they do."

It's important to remember that as serious as Republicans are about adhering to the outlined budget, it's not necessarily the be-all and end-all in determining funding levels. That's the job of lawmakers on appropriation committees, who are just beginning to get to work on the various spending bills.

President Barack Obama has vowed to veto spending bills set at sequester levels, and Democrats came out swinging against the deal, which was brokered over the last several weeks between Republicans in the House and Senate.

"Instead of working with us to build on the bipartisan budget deal we struck last Congress, Republicans have introduced a budget that would lock in sequestration, hollow out defense and non-defense investments, and use gimmicks and games to paper over the problems," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

In 2013, Murray, then-chairwoman of the Senate budget committee, brokered a budget deal with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the then-chairman of the House budget committee, that rolled back sequestration for the last two years and still achieved about $85 billion in savings. Sequestration is the term used for the across-the-board spending cuts set by Congress in 2011.

"Republicans went the opposite way with their budget this year," Murray said. "They were able to cut trillions of dollars on programs that support families and fight poverty, nearly a trillion dollars from Medicare and Medicaid, and more than $5 trillion overall, but they refused to dedicate a single penny of that to roll back the automatic cuts to education, research, or defense investments."

You can read an overview of the fiscal deal here.

The budget essentially holds in place current spending levels for fiscal 2016, meaning no new money for federal education programs. But education advocates are especially worried about future discretionary and mandatory cuts.

(Here's a chart pulled from the budget overview)

budget.PNGBeginning in fiscal year 2017, the budget calls for cuts below the current sequester-level, slashing nondefense discretionary funding by $496 billion over nine years. It also calls for $162 billion in cuts over 10 years from mandatory spending for programs that fall under the category of education, training, employment and social services.

While the budget doesn't specify where those mandatory cuts would come from, a large chunk would be recouped from changes to student loan and college affordability policies.

More than $84 billion would come from eliminating mandatory funding for the Pell grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income students, and $62 billion would come from eliminating the in-school interest subsidy for need-based student loans. More would be culled from limiting income-based repayment options and eliminating public service loan forgiveness—all of which have been Obama administration priorities.

According to the Committee for Education Funding, if the discretionary cuts are applied equally to all agencies, the U.S. Department of Education would be cut by about $3.5 billion in fiscal 2017, and Head Start, which is run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would be cut by $421 million.

In a letter addressed to members of Congress, CEF, which is a coalition of 117 national education associations spanning early learning to postgraduate education that advocate for additional education funding, said the budget would "cause irreparable harm."

"These unprecedented and senseless cuts will ... move our nation backwards in efforts to close achievement gaps, improve overall student success, and increase high school graduation, college access and college-completion rates," wrote CEF Executive Director Joel Packer and President Noelle Ellerson in the April 30 letter.

It's unlikely unclear whether the dozen appropriation committees will be able to successfully craft their spending bills and shepherd them through their respective chambers before the fiscal year ends Oct. 1. If not, Congress will run up against its typical countdown to a government shutdown while trying to broker a stop-gap funding measure to keep the money flowing.

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