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Senators: ESSA Block Grant Shorted in Obama Budget


Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other Republicans on the Senate panel that oversees education spending are really unhappy that the president's budget request for the U.S. Department of Education only asks for $500 million for the brand new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants— aka the big giant block grant in the Every Student Succeds Act. And they said so in a budget hearing Thursday, featuring Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

ESSA authorizes about $1.5 billion a year for the block grant, while eliminating some 50 separate programs aimed at student health and safety, arts education, education technology, school counseling, and more. Alexander pointed out that the block grant was essentially a compromise—many senators wanted to keep those eliminated programs around, or had hoped to create new ones. He doesn't understand why the president's budget asks for more than $5 billion in new K-12 programs while not seeking to fund the block grant sufficiently.


"We're looking for signals about how well you are going to follow this new impulse of Congress in this new education law," Alexander said.

King told him that the $500 million is actually an increase for all the programs that were rolled into the block grant, which include the Elementary and Secondary Counseling program and a physical education program. They are currently funded at $278 million all told, he said. Plus there isn't room for major spending increases, he added.

"We were trying in this budget both to advance the president's priorities and stay under the caps for discretionary spending," he said.

That answer didn't placate everyone on the committee. Another GOP lawmaker, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, told King he's none-too-pleased that the administration has proposed making the block grant competitive within states. Under ESSA, the funds are supposed to go out by formula.

"It looks like you're ignoring the clear intent of Congress," he said. Cassidy's worried, too, that rural schools could be shortchanged if the program becomes competitive. King said states could give priority to rural applicants, like the department does with Investing in Innovation grants (now called the Education Innovation and Research grants under ESSA).

And Sen.Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. added her voice to the chorus. (One note: We originally said it was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chimed in here. Thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who corrected us!)

But Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the panel, seemed to understand where King was coming from.

"You asked for essentially double what you've been spending," he said. "I don't [want] to suggest that anyone is stepping back from the traditional commitment" to the health, safety and other programs included in the block grant.

So what's the takeaway? The exchange is probably good news for fans of the block grant, who may see a little more than $500 million when the committee releases its spending bill for fiscal year 2017 (that mostly impacts the 2017-18 school year, the first year that ESSA will be fully implemented). 

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