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Keeping Pressure on Congress

 

The Advocate, October 2015
Dan Domenech, executive director
AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Perhaps the biggest news on ESEA has nothing to do with ESEA at all. Rather, it is that John Boehner announced his October 30 resignation as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and from his elected office. This has no direct impact on ESEA in that no one really knows what was in the works. What remains to be seen, however, is what action will take place. Leadership from the U.S. House and Senate education committees (Reps. John Kline and Bobby Scott, along with Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray) were named as conferee chairs, but we have yet to see who else will be a conference committee member.

We want to keep pressure on Congress to act this fall. A letter was sent to Capitol Hill in coordination with nine other national organizations to relay that message. You can also read AASA’s letter, which focuses on five particular policy areas: accountability, portability, expanded data collection, alternate assessment and Title I formula.

Boehner’s announced departure was followed by the announcement of Secretary Duncan’s departure in December. The impact of this departure remains to be seen and is debatable. We aren’t necessarily certain that his departure is a signal that the U.S. Department of Education will be more involved in ESEA discussions or that a “fresh face” at the department will necessarily prove helpful. The department did piece together—in a rather flurried moment—a round table discussion with Senators and interested stakeholders on October 8 to talk about the importance of expanded accountability. This could potentially be a move by the department to insert itself into advancing ESEA discussions. If that is the case, it is not certain that the department’s influence would create a willingness to write in more prescription and requirements as they relate to accountability in ESEA.

On appropriations, Congress acted—at the 11th hour—to avoid a shutdown. The House and Senate passed a clean continuing resolution (CR). A CR is used by Congress to allow the government to keep running even when it hasn’t completed its funding work in time for the start of the fiscal year (October 1). The short-term CR runs until December 11. Congress has until that date to complete its appropriations work or pass another short-term CR. As a point of reference, we had seven short term CRs last year. The timing on this CR is tricky. The debt ceiling is expected to be raised in late November or December. There will be a politicization of that discussion. The last time it was super politicized, we had the threat of a shutdown and ended up with the Budget Control Act, which triggered sequestration. We expect a contentious environment around both the debt ceiling and any subsequent fiscal policy after this initial CR.

Congress still has a responsibility to replace or repeal the sequester. If it does not, policy makers must ensure that the pressure of sequestration applies equally to all aspects of the discretionary dollars (defense and non-defense). We have talked about the very significant education cuts that the House and Senate budgets for this year include. The House cuts are comparable to that of the 2013 sequester while Senate cuts are only slightly better. Given the poor funding within the proposed House and Senate education levels, one might think that a yearlong CR would be a good deal. However, a yearlong CR would still be subject to the caps of sequester. And while there would be level funding, there are some programs in the broader budget that come with mandatory increases. Mandatory increases in a level funding scenario means cuts for others, including education, and those cuts would play out like a sequester, across the board, blind to program need or effectiveness. It also shifts the dynamic of sequester. To date, the cuts of sequester caps have applied to ALL aspects of discretionary funding, both defense and non-defense. One of the programs that would get an increase is a defense program, meaning that defense would get an increase while non-defense discretionary (including education) would not. The limited success we have had in thwarting deeper cuts has been the strong claim—supported by the administration—to parity between defense and non-defense discretionary. And a yearlong CR would implode parity.