When it comes to federal appropriations, the reputation of the U.S. Congress leaves much to be desired. While the nation’s public school superintendents run balanced, on-time budgets, the last time Congress completed the full appropriations process on time (meaning 12 appropriations bills reviewed and adopted before the October 1 start of the federal fiscal year) was 1994. That means children born in the year that Congress last completed its appropriations work on time are now old enough to drink.
Of late, the appropriations process has been a series of actual and threatened government shutdowns, sequestration and continuing resolutions. The funding for the programs we advocate for are in the Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Other (LHHS) appropriation bill. While Congress has advanced budget proposals, which outline the overall funding level, policymakers haven’t provided details at the LHHS appropriations level in several years.
From an advocacy point of view, this is very frustrating. We can see what the overall trend is, but do not have the information critical to making Congress accountable for its actions. We see a big disconnect between members of Congress who say they support investment in education but then vote for the very draconian budgets of late—budgets that level fund the government and set up scenarios that disproportionately and negatively impact education. Lack of a stand-alone LHHS proposal (even if it ends up in an omnibus/combination appropriation bill) means that Congress gets to vote for budgets that limit or cut funding at the overall level without having to necessarily detail what they mean at the programmatic level in a way that allows advocacy and discourse.
More succinctly, the lack of a stand-alone LHHS bill denies educators the opportunity to see how Congress would allocate its cuts to critical education programs. It lacks the transparency and accountability that should be a cornerstone of the federal appropriations process by glossing over impacts on entire sectors of the budget.
Fortunately, or not, that momentum has shifted this year. Just this week the House Appropriations Committee released the text and a summary of its draft FY 2016 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill.
The numbers are as dismal as can be expected given the overall budget: The bill cuts discretionary funding for the U.S. Education Department by $2.8 billion. That is a bigger cut than occurred in the 2013 sequester. Details are still being confirmed, but we know that 20+ plus programs are eliminated or receive funding cuts, including SIG, safe/drug free program, Investing in Education, Magnet School Assistance, Gifted/Talented, and AP (all eliminated) and Pell discretionary, and teacher quality state grants (funding cuts). Five programs receive an increase (Impact Aid Basic Support Payments, +$10 million; Indian Education, +$20 million; Charter school grants, +$4.8 million; IDEA state grants, +$502 million; and Head Start, +192 million). Many more are level funded, including Title I, migrant education, neglected/delinquent, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and more, along with some program specifics still being confirmed.
Don’t get us wrong, a $502 million increase for IDEA is welcomed, critical and well past due. In the context of broader cuts that run deeper than any IDEA increase can cover, this is an appropriations bill focused on cutting funding to our nation’s schools and disinvesting in the future. We understand the importance of fiscal responsibility and have meaningfully engaged in conversations around spending cuts, restraint and more. There are two sides to responsibility. However, cuts of this magnitude are deliberate and irresponsible.
This appropriations bill will likely be followed by a Senate counterpart, not anticipated to be all that different. President Obama is expected to veto this LHHS bill (if not other appropriations bills ahead of it), which puts us back on the path of continuing resolutions and potential shut downs. Congress does not get to take credit for doing the work of appropriations when its work is so deliberately debilitating and a deal breaker from the start. It is imperative that Congress works to replace the sequester (through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases) and works to ensure continued investment in critical federal programs, including education. From where we sit, this budget is bad news for our nation’s schools and the students they serve.