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With Federal Budget Deal Expiring in Four Days, Where Does K-12 Spending Stand?

Amid the rush of news regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, you may have forgotten the ongoing saga surrounding the federal budget. Earlier this year, Congress struck a temporary deal to fund the government and prevent it from shutting down. But that deal runs out on Friday, Dec. 11.

It's not at all clear that congressional budget negotiators are close to striking an omnibus budget deal. Without such a deal, Congress would have to once again pass a short-term spending plan, known as a continuing resolution, to fund the government and avert a partial shutdown. So what are the details, and where do things stand for K-12?

As of late Dec. 7, the short answer is this: It might be very hard for Congress to work out an omnibus deal before Friday. And even if they're able to pull it off for some programs, it's possible that federal K-12 aid could be frozen in limbo for the foreseeable future, thanks to non-education issues that have an impact on the K-12 budget process. 

Some background: A key aspect of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015, the name of the current temporary budget deal, is that it ends most of the mandatory spending caps on non-defense discretionary federal spending, including funding for K-12, for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Those caps collectively are known as the sequester, which kicked in for the 2012-13 school year. A budget deal from 2014 largely restored sequestration's cuts in federal aid to school districts, but Congress is still dealing with sequestration's long-term presence in the budget. 

But the recent Bipartisan Budget Act did not spell out specific appropriation levels for various federal programs including those for K-12. So it's still up to members of Congress to act before this coming Friday to decide exactly how much money will be provided to the nation's public schools, and which programs would get what levels of funding. 

So what are funding advocates hoping for? K-12 funding fans like those on the Committee for Education Funding hope that in addition to the elimination of the sequester cuts to K-12, there will be funding increases for high-profile education programs such as Head Start, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and TRIO programs

The Bipartisan Budget Act, if it's backed up by an omnibus budget deal, would allow for $33 billion inspending increases in fiscal 2016, and the same amount for fiscal 2017. But the portion of the budget dealing with education, as well as other programs under the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services, wouldn't see any of that increase if Congress applies a continuing resolution to it, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

Why might Congress do that? It's because education funding could get tangled up with fights that don't deal with K-12 but impact other parts of the budget that fund schools. For an example, think of the Republican effort to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

One possibility that Packer's heard goes like this: In order to put those kind of budget fights on hold, K-12 programs would be funded by a continuing resolution that would last until next March. That would lead to "four more months of uncertainty about how much money programs would get," he said. And even after that, in the middle of presidential primaries and with President Barack Obama releasing his own proposed fiscal 2017 budget, it's unclear when exactly education programs would get off the "continuing resolution" track and onto the "omnibus" track.

"It would just not be good," Packer said.


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