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House Panel OKs Bill With Cuts to Ed. Department, Hike for Special Education

The U.S. Department of Education's current $68 billion budget would be cut by $1.3 billion overall in fiscal 2017, and some dozen education programs would be slashed or eliminated, under a bill approved on party lines Thursday by the House appropriations panel that oversees education spending. 

It's not all bad news though: Special education state grants would see a considerable increase of $500 million, to $12.4 billion. And a new flexible spending fund created under the Every Student Succeeds would receive a lot more money than under a bipartisan Senate version of the measure.

Republicans supported the bill, while Democrats disparaged the cuts and expressed concerns about policy changes. The bill would block some Obama administration regulations, including prohibiting the Education Department from moving forward on regulations requiring teacher preparation institutions to be evaluated based in part on how well their graduates do when it comes to moving the needle on student test scores.   

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the panel, said the bill would cut or eliminate more than a dozen education programs, which "flies in the face of the bipartisan reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act."

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman, said he understood her concerns, but added that the panel was under tight spending constraints. On the other side of the Capitol, however, Democrats and Republicans teamed up earlier this year on bipartisan legislation to finance the Education Department.

Winners

The House bill seeks a whopping $1 billion for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, aka ESSA's giant block grant. The money is supposed to go out by a formula to school districts, which could use it for everything from computer science education to counseling services to arts education or school safety. 

The $1 billion proposed by the House is a lot more than the $300 million the Senate proposed for the program, and more than the $500 million the president asked for in his budget. Brian Lewis, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, hailed the proposal, calling it a "step forward" in contrast to the Senate's "paltry" ask.

Other program increases would include Impact Aid, which helps school districts make up for a federal presence, at $1.3 billion, a $23 million increase. Two college access programs, GEARUP and TRIO, also would be slated for boosts, although the committee could not give exact numbers.

Head Start—which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services—would see a $142 million increase, to $9.3 billion. That's enough for a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for grantees.

Also on the early-childhood front, the bill would finance the Preschool Development Grants, a huge priority for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the Obama administration when ESSA was under development. That program would get $250 million.

The bill would also include about $15.4 billion for the Title I program for disadvantaged students, compared to $14.9 billion currently, according to the Committee for Education Funding. That seems like a big increase, but actually is not, because the roughly $450 million School Improvement Grant program was folded into Title I under ESSA. What's more, district advocates worry that funding changes in ESSA could end up shortchanging districts, to the tune of $200 million in Title I funding overall.

Programs Cut

DeLauro offered an amendment to restore an overall $1.3 billion in cuts. But she was unable to give hard-and-fast details on which programs were on the chopping block in a quick interview after the markup, because those numbers aren't public yet. 

During committee debate, however, she said that state grants for teacher quality were cut by $400 million. That would bring the program to about $1.9 billion. The Senate's version of the legislation also would cut the program, but by a much smaller amount, $200 million.

And DeLauro said literacy programs were cut by $57 million, which appears to mean that the $190 million Comprehensive Literacy Development program created under ESSA would be cut.

Other programs would be scrapped altogether. For instance, the Education Innovation and Research fund, the successor to the Investing in Innovation program, which is currently getting $120 million, appears to have been slated for elimination under the House bill, advocates said.   

So has the Full-Service Community Schools program, which was continued under ESSA and currently receives about $10 million. 

DeLauro offered an amendment that would allow low-income college students to use their Pell Grants year-round, as the Senate version of the bill would do. Many disadvantaged students, she said, really want to be able to take classes in the summer, so that they can finish their degrees and join the workforce.

"This is a win-win issue," she said. "It's not a partisan issue."

Cole promised to keep the issue on the table in discussions with the Senate. 

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