Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Legislative Update: Budget and Appropriations

Stimulus. Omnibus. Budget Request. The White House, federal agencies, lawmakers and the Appropriations Committees staff have been working nonstop in recent weeks to produce these three spending proposals that have left the education community chasing paper, seeking explanations, timelines and expressing gratitude, although sometimes they haven't been exactly sure why.

The stimulus package, or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), has been law for almost two weeks now, educators and advocates want to know when their schools will see real dollars. The Department of Education is busily deciding how and when it will, or has to, distribute funds. Some of the decisions are governed by existing formulas and legislation. Others are not. Of particular interest is the $5 billion "Race to the Top Fund" the secretary of education will have at his discretion to encourage reform and innovation. It has been reported that the department will issue a request for proposals for these funds in the spring, with award distribution in the fall. Department leadership is working hard and has asked for patience from the field.

Related to other federal funding, the House passed the $410 billion FY 2009 Omnibus spending bill, a bill funding almost all of the federal agencies for the remainder of FY 2009, which began Oct. 1, 2008. A continuing resolution funding federal operations expires March 6. The House passed the FY 2009 Omnibus by a vote of 245-178, with 16 Republicans voting yes and 20 Democrats saying no. The Senate is expected to approve the bill this week.

The Omnibus includes approximately $600 million in new funding for Title I and special education, a $65 million boost over last year's funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) with more than $1.6 billion more for Head Start and $50 million in additional funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. This is in addition to the supplemental funding many of these programs will receive from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

To round out the trifecta of spending proposals, President Obama sent the outline of his first proposed budget to Congress on Feb. 26. The FY 2010 budget request was short on detail but does provide insight into his funding priorities. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined the education spending portion of the bill in a conference call later that day and said the proposal's goal is to move the United States to number one in the world of the percentage of citizens with college degrees. The proposal focuses on investments that improve college readiness, retention and affordability, with significant investments in federal student aid programs. Duncan also discussed the need for strong K-12 standards in every state to improve college readiness and student achievement.

Duncan also warned that ineffective programs will not be funded in the detailed budget proposal to be released this spring. Echoing President Obama's call to "end the era of irresponsibility," he said difficult decisions are ahead.

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