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Senate Panel OKs Tiny Hikes for Key K-12 Grants, $300 Million for ESSA Block Grant

Washington, D.C.

School districts and states wouldn't see big increases to funding for special education, or Title I money for disadvantaged students under a spending bill approved Tuesday by the Senate panel that oversees education, labor, and health spending.

And, to the chagrin of many advocates, a new flexible spending fund created under the Every Student Succeeds Act—called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program—would be slated to receive only $300 million, or a little more than the roughly $278 milllion the programs that make up the block grant (such as Advanced Placement and elementary and secondary school counseling) are getting currently.

In March, lawmakers gave U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., grief when he testified on the budget request for the administration's $500 million ask for the new program, which is a lot less than the $1.6 billion authorized under ESSA. Advocacy groups sent letters to Congress complaining about the budget request. And obviously, $300 million is even less than the administration wanted.

The spending bill  includes an overall cut of $220 million to the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2017, which would bring the agency's budget to $67.8 billion, comparable to current levels. The committee had a tight budget allocation, so there wasn't much rooom to manuever, lawmakers said. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who helped craft the agreement as the top Democrat on the panel, said during debate that she wished there had been more money for education and other priorities. 

It includes what amounts to a tiny hike for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, bringing the program from $14.9 billion currently to $15.4 billion. That $500 million might sound like a big increase. 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 imrovement 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. 

Special education state grants would receive a small, $40 million increase, to $11.95 billion. Career and technical education would be flat-funded, at a little over $1 billion. 

K-12 Winners and Losers

Other programs would see slight increases, including Impact Aid, which helps districts make up for lost tax dollars due to a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or military base. The program would get a $10 million boost, to $1.3 billion. Grants for charter schools would also see a $10 million hike, bringing the program to $343 million. 

The department's office for civil rights, which is handling an unprecedented number of investigations, would see a small, $3 million increase, to $110 million. And support for homeless students would increase $7 million, to $77 million. Homeless students are also a focus of ESSA—the new law requires states to break out test score data for homeless kids, just as they did under the No Child Left Behind Act for racial minorities, disadvantaged kids, and other special populations. 

And other programs received level funding, including Preschool Development Grants, which help states expand and improve the quality of their early-education programs. The program, which was a huge priority for Murray, during ESSA's development and is now located in the Department of Health and Human Services, would receive about $250 million. 

The Promise Neighborhood program, which encourages districts to pair education with wraparound services, would receive $73.2 million, the same amount the program is currently getting. The bill includes new language aimed at supporting the extension of strong Promise Neighborhood programs.

And the Education Innovation and Research program, the successor to the Obama administration's Investing in Innovation grant program, would be slated to receive $120 million, the same amount i3 is currrently getting. 

There were also some cuts, including to state grants for teacher quality, which are funded at about $2.3 billion, a roughly $200 million decrease from current levels. 

On the higher education front, the bill includes a proposal for year-round Pell Grants. which would allow students to take advantage of the program during the summer. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee, said during Tuesday's subcommittee markup that he sees this as a great step forward, but he wants to "keep a close eye" on the cost of the change, to make sure it remains affordable. 

ESSA Connections 

During the markup, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., expressed dismay at the $300 million allocation for the block grant, which is supposed to help districts cover the cost of technology, student health and wellness, safety, arts education, and more.

"Without strong funding, I fear the incredible potential of this program won't be realized," she said. 

And advocates quickly circulated statements expressing their frustration. Here's a sample, from the STEM Coalition, which works to expand and improve science, math, engineering, and technology edudcation:

We are very disappointed in the Subcommittee funding level of $300 million for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program, Title IV, Part A. This critical program, included by overwhelming bipartisan consensus in the Every Student Succeeds Act, would provide schools with the flexible resources they need to support wide range of activities like science, technology, engineering, and math competitions, hands-on learning, and bringing high-quality STEM courses—including computer science—to high-need schools.  The Subcommittee funding level is more than a BILLION dollars below the level authorized under ESSA and this is unacceptable.  We look forward to working with the members of the full committee to increase this funding level going forward.

Both of ESSA's key architects—Alexander and Murray—would have liked to have seen more money for the flexible spending fund. But both seemed to put a premium on getting a bipartisan spending bill for education, health, and labor programs— something that hasn't happened in more than a half a dozen years.
 
In a quick interview after the markup, when asked if he was disapointed with the $300 million allocation, Alexander stressed the big picture.
"I'm not disapointed with this bill," he said. "Year-round Pell Grants are the most important higher education" step of the past couple years. He was also pleased that the bill includes a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health. "That's terrific," he said, even if it means he can't fund K-12 programs as much as he would have liked. 
And Murray believes ESSA implementation will proceed more smoothly if Congress is able to pass an honest-to-goodness spending bill for the Education Department, rather than simply extending funding at last year's levels, a congressional aide said. (This budget, for fiscal year 2017 which starts on Oct. 1, is the first official spending plan for ESSA. The new law made a bunch of programatic changes—eliminating some programs and combining others—so an extension bill could get very complicated.) 
On another issue, it doesn't appear that the bill includes any policy riders that would seek to put the kibosh on the department's approach to supplement-not-supplant, which governs how federal dollars relate to local and state spending.  During negotiated rulemaking for ESSA, the department put forth a proposed rule on the issue that drew serious criticism from Alexander, the National Governor's Association, state chiefs, advocates for districts, and more.
The negotiated rulemaking committee failed to come to agreement on the issue, so the department will get to write its own regulation, which will be subject to congresssional review. Alexander said at a hearing earlier this year that he could use the appropriations process to help put the brakes on supplement-not-supplant regulations that he feels oversteps congressional intent in ESSA. 
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