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Senate Panel Approves K-12 Spending Bill, Despite Concerns Over ESSA's Flexible Fund

School districts and states would see small increases in federal funding for disadvantaged kids and struggling schools, as well as special education but a lot less money—$300 million—than advocates wanted for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants under a bill approved with big bipartisan support by the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday.

The bill, which would cut the U.S. Department of Education's roughly $68 billion budget by more than $200 million, includes what amounts to a small hike for Title I grants for disadvantaged students. The increase would bring the program from $14.9 billion currently to $15.4 billion. That $500 million in additional funding might sound like a major boost. But it is not, in part because the $450 million School Improvement Grants were eliminated under ESSA and added to the broader Title I program.

What's more, advocates for districts have maintained that the program needs a $250 million boost, in addition to the school improvement funding, to ensure districts don't lose money, thanks to changes ESSA made to the way the grants flow. This proposal doesn't go that far. More on that below.

ESSA Implications

Advocates—and a number of lawmakers were especially disappointed in the funding level for the Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, the new flexible fund created in the Every Student Succeeds Act to help school districts cover the cost of technology, student health, counseling, advanced coursework, safety, arts education, STEM education, and more. The fund is essentially a conglomeration of a bunch of different programs that were consolidated under ESSA, including Advanced Placement and Elementary and Secondary School Counseling.

The bill authorizes $1.6 billion for the grants, which are supposed to go out by formula to school districts all around the country. 

The Obama administration asked for just $500 million for the grants, to the chagrin of advocates and lawmakers, including ESSA's architects in the House, Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., even took to task U.S. Secretary John B. King, Jr., for the ask when he testified before the committee.

This bill provides even less than the administration wanted. Still, the $300 million allocation is more than the $270 million the programs are getting now.

Advocates, though, aren't consoled, in part because this is such an important year for the block grant. First off, Congress will likely build on wherever the program starts, and $300 million, advocates say, isn't a strong starting point. What's more, $300 million, spread all across the country, doesn't do much for most school districts.

"It is going to be very hard to push this up in future years. Block grants tend not to do well in appropriations because they lack strong advocacy," David DeSchryver, the senior vice president and co-director of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting organization in Washington said in an email. "Members of Congress aren't going to get lambasted at home over this." 

And the timing is especially bad, because districts and states are now working on their ESSA plans. The small sum doesn't give them much room to dream big when it comes to new uses for the funds, DeSchryver added.

"This is really unfortunate for [next year] because these funds set the framework for the new state and local plans. This funding level, however, denies oxygen to the new ideas that [the flexible fund] may have inspired," he said. "It's more likely that we will just have the same people doing the same jobs in their districts, but with less funding. It's quite an uninspired decision by the [lawmakers who deal with spending.]"

There may be some hope for the fund down the line—number of members of the committee appear to share those concerns. Sens. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and John Hoeven, R-N.D., both said they were bummed the block grant didn't receive more money—in part because it could have helped fund computer science education.

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she's hoping that the block grant can grow later on in the legislative process.

"There was a lot of hope for [the grants]," she said, which are aimed at helping school districts fund "everything from college to career guidance to suicide prevention, to music and arts .. to technology ... just about everything that you can think" that would allow schools to help improve student health and provide students with a well-rounded education.

Title I Concerns

Meanwhile, advocates for school districts were dismayed with the overall allocation for Title I grants for disadvantaged kids. The $15.4 billion provided under the bill isn't likely to be enough to offset some changes in the way grants flow made under ESSA, which means some school districts may end up seeing cuts, said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of policy & advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Ellerson understands the panel was operating under some very difficult budget constraints, but she still feels like education overall got short shrift, particularly given that school districts and states are in the midst of implementing a brand new education law. Read AASA's letter on the bill here.

The bill would also provide a small increase to special education state grants, which would receive a small $40 million increase, to $11.95 billion. Funding for Teacher Quality state grants and after-school programs would be cut slightly, to $1.05 billion, down from $1.15 billion last year. And state grants for teacher quality would be funded at about $2 billion, a roughly $200 million decrease from current levels. More here.

 Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the panels that oversee K-12 funding and policy, said that while she supports the bill overall, she was bummed that it didn't provide more for Title I and the block grant. But that doesn't mean those programs won't see increases in the future.

"We were working under tight budget caps, " she said. "I'm hoping this is a floor we can build on." 

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