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Democrats Advance Bill to Spend Billions More on Schools. Is It Doomed to Fail?


A bill to increase the U.S. Department of Education's budget by more than $4 billion is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives. 

On Wednesday the House appropriations committee approved legislation that would provide significant increases for grants aimed at disadvantaged students, after-school programming, and social-emotional learning on Wednesday. It's the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the appropriations process in the chamber, but their bill is very, very far from becoming the law of the land. 

The committee approved the bill 30-23 and reported it to the full House. Democrats lauded the legislation for its increased support for child care, Head Start (which is part of the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services), and special education. Between K-12 and higher education, the bill would provide $75.9 billion to the Education Department for fiscal 2020, which begins Oct. 1. That would be a $4.4. billion increase, or a 6.2 percent hike over current spending. Trump had proposed cutting the department's budget down to $64 billion. 

"This bill invests in educating our children to ensure a brighter future, including by relieving many of the financial barriers for families," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee. 

An amendment to the bill adopted Wednesday would increase career and technical education funding by $10 million, magnet school funding by $5 million, and special education funding by $5 million over the amounts in the original legislation. 

Want more details about the Democrats' federal education funding bill? Click here. 

Important reminder: The legislation hasn't been approved by the full House yet. More importantly, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will likely introduce a bill that's different in several key respects. And Trump won't look kindly on big increases for the Education Department. So that $4.4 billion increase could end up being a distant dream for House Democrats.

That was the primary message from Rep. Tom Cole, the subcommittee's top Republican, on Wednesday. 

Cole said that while he supported the bill's increases for special education, Impact Aid, and other areas, he expressed concern that its overall funding increases would get vetoed by the president, leading to either sequestration (mandatory spending cuts), a continuing resolution on spending that would amount to a punt by Congress, or another government shutdown.

"None of these is an acceptable outcome," Cole said.

Still, under the Trump adminstration, Education Department spending has crept up slightly

School Safety in the Spotlight

Perhaps the most extensive discussion about education took place when a Republican congressman introduced and then withdrew an amendment to the bill regarding school safety. The amendment from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., would have allowed $1.3 billion in grants for student support and academic enrichement to be spent on things like bulletproof glass and alert systems at schools. 

Diaz-Balart said his proposed amendment was "simple language that gives school districts the option ... to use these funds for security-hardening measures in schools." But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she did not think statutory language would permit those grants under Title IV to be used on such school-hardening measures. (A parent whose son was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., criticized Democrats for "blocking" the language.) Democrats, however, said they were open to funding school-hardening measures in a separate appropriations bill. 

In addition, the committee's report on the bill directs DeVos to issue guidance clarifying that Title IV funding can't be used to buy guns and arm teachers. The issue has become a huge point of contention between the department and Democrats. During a House hearing in March, Democrats revealed internal department communications that they said proved Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had refused to clarify whether Title IV grants under the Every Student Succeeds Act could be used to arm teachers. 

While Democrats want more money for several programs, they want $40 million less for federal charter school grants, a cut of nearly 10 percent to $400 million. The move symbolizes how opposition to charter schools has gained more traction in the Democratic Party recently, particular during the Trump administration, although some prominent Democrats continue to support them. By contrast, magnet schools would get $125 million in the bill, an $18 million increase from current funding. 

Need a chart for the bill's education funding numbers? Here you go:

Image: Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House subcommittee that overseas the U.S. Department of Education's budget, speaks at a committee hearing on federal spending on Capitol Hill on May 8, 2019. 

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