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Education Advocates to Congress: Pass a Real Budget

It looks like states and school districts wondering whether they'll see an increase in federal funding this year may have to wait a bit longer. The lame-duck Congress may give itself a little extra time to figure out just what it wants to do about the fiscal year 2011 budget, lobbyists have told me.

As you might remember, Congress didn't get its act together to pass the fiscal 2011 appropriations bill before the midterm elections. That fiscal year started on Oct. 1, and the federal government has been operating under a bill extending all programs at fiscal year 2010 levels since then. The bill expires Dec. 3—this Friday. Congress may pass another, short-term extension later this week, giving itself another week or two to figure out what to do next, advocates say.

Lawmakers essentially have a choice between a) trying to put together a giant spending bill or b) extending funding for key education programs, and the rest of the budget, at fiscal 2010 levels until the end of fiscal 2011, which ends on Sept. 30.

They could also go with option c) pass a shorter term extension, just until the new, more conservative Congress is in place. The Obama administration's hoped-for extension of important programs, such as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant program, hang in the balance.

The Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition, lead by Executive Director Joel Packer (who is a principal at the Raben Group), is definitely hoping for the first option, a comprehensive budget. The group sent a letter to lawmakers last week asking them to complete a so-called omnibus spending bill.

Here's a snippet:

The FY 11 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill as reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $2.8 billion in increased funding for a range of important education programs. These include Title I, IDEA grants to states .... and $300 million for the new Early Learning Challenge Fund, while also providing funding for recent initiatives such as Race To The Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods.

These funds are urgently needed to continue progress on improving student achievement, closing achievement gaps, and increasing high school graduation, post-secondary education attendance and completion rates.

If Congress decides to go with a year-long budget extension, that means no additional money for key programs like Title I and special education.

Besides the budget, Congress has a lot left to do in the lame-duck session. This week, the House of Representatives may also consider the Senate's version of a bill renewing child nutrition programs. If it passes, reauthorization of that program will be completed. But if it doesn't, lawmakers will have to start the process all over again next year.

And the Senate is set to consider the DREAM Act, which would make it possible for undocumented immigrants to attain legal status if they succeed in post-secondary education or serve in the military. This may be the last, best chance for the legislation, which is unlikely to get much support from the incoming GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

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