Senate Appropriations Committee Approves Education Funding Bill

The full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the first bipartisan Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS-Ed) funding bill in 7 years by a vote of 29 to 1 on June 9, 2016. Chairman Blunt (R-MO) and Ranking Member Murray (D-WA) of the LHHS-Ed subcommittee, along with the rest of the members, expressed enthusiasm for the bipartisan nature of the fiscal year 2017 bill––noting that it was not a bill that either party would have written themselves but was a good bill that stays within the budget caps set by law and is free of poison pill riders. Although Ranking Member of the full Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski (D-MD), cited concerns with funding levels in the bill due to tough choices to cut back education and workforce training programs, she still said it was a “great bill”.

Despite working with a $270 million lower subcommittee allocation from fiscal year 2016 (FY 16), the LHHS subcommittee gave some agencies and programs massive increases. The largest increase by far was the $2 billion bump in funding (from $32 billion to $34 billion) for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for medical research and disease prevention––a major priority from members on both sides of the aisle. Other bipartisan priorities for Senators––which are obvious given the funding levels in the bill––include a 93% increase to $261 million to combat issues with opioid abuse, and the restoration of year round Pell grants.

Education however, did not fare so well in this year’s funding bill and K-12 advocates have little to be happy about. Overall, the Department of Education receives a cut of $200 million for FY 17, bringing the total agency budget to $67.8 billion. Title I of ESSA only received a $500 million increase bringing the program total to $15.4 billion, which advocates say is not really an increase given that $450 million for School Improvement Grants were eliminated under ESSA and lumped into the Title I program.

Unfortunately for school leaders who depend heavily on these funds for professional development, Title II received a $200 million decrease from FY 16, from $2.25 billion to $2.05 billion in FY 17. The impact of this lower funding level means that states are going to be less likely to take advantage of the 3% set-aside under Title II, A of ESSA at the state level for principal professional development given there is less money to allocate at the local level.

Recognizing the priority of this set aside however, Congress did include report language that asks the Department to issue guidance informing states they can use Title II, A funds to support principals and provide the much needed specific professional development to aid them in successfully completing their plethora and ever increasing duties as school leaders. Specifically, the Senate’s report language on Title II states:

“States and LEAs may use funds for a range of activities related to the certification, recruitment, professional development, and support of teachers and administrators. Activities may include re- forming teacher certification and licensure requirements, addressing alternative routes to State certification of teachers, recruiting teachers and principals, and implementing teacher mentoring systems, teacher testing, merit pay, and merit-based performance systems. These funds may also be used by districts to hire teachers to reduce class sizes.

“ESSA includes new provisions to promote the use of title I and title II funds to support principals and school leaders, including an optional 3 percent set-aside of title II-A funds for such activities, Many States already use these funds to support principals and school leaders but all States would benefit from clear guidance and examples of how States and LEAs could best use these funds to support effective strategies in this area. Therefore, the Committee strongly encourages the Department to issue guidance on the importance of strong school leadership, and how States can use existing resources to support principals and school leadership, including examples of best practices.”

Neither Title II of ESSA or the School Leadership and Recruitment and Support Program (SLRSP) were mentioned at either the sub or full committee markups were school leadership programs.

Another major disappointment was the paltry funding level of $300 million for the new flexible Title IV, Part A block grant under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant (SSAEG) program. Authorized in ESSA at $1.65 billion, the SSAEG program would be distributed by Title I formula to states and districts and would allow districts to use funds for the effective use of technology, safe and healthy school programs, and well-rounded curriculum programs. The aggregate funding level in FY16 of the programs consolidated into this block grant totaled $278 million but the block grant actually encompasses a number of new programs and programs like ed tech that received no funding in FY16.

Source: Bernstein Strategy Group