Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriations Bill Restores Some Funding, Brings Some Surprises

Flickr / Elliott P.

Last night, negotiators in Congress released the text of the omnibus appropriations bill that funds federal agencies for fiscal year 2014. House and Senate leaders hope to pass the bill quickly, and are already racking up support from members.

The massive funding bill is the second part of a budget agreement reached last month by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) under which lawmakers agreed to increase total appropriations funding for fiscal year 2014 to $1.012 trillion, an increase of $28 billion compared with the prior year. Recall that the prior year funding ($984 billion) reflects across-the-board cuts under the sequester.

To be sure, $28 billion doesn’t look so large when lawmakers spread it across every federal agency. But education programs look to have fared well in the deal. The Department of Education’s total appropriation will probably be close to its pre-sequestration amount, meaning federal programs in other agencies will likely take a bigger hit to keep the Education Department’s budget healthy.

Congress restored most funds that were cut under the sequester in 2013 to the two largest PreK-12 formula grants: Title I grants for disadvantaged students (funded at $14.4 billion in the bill) and special education state grants ($11.5 billion). Impact Aid—a  program to help federally-affected schools, such as those on military bases or with substantial low-income housing—was  perhaps most devastatingly affected by sequestration, because its cuts were immediate and severe. The omnibus restores nearly all of the funding ($1.3 billion) that sequestration cut from the program in 2013.

The bill also maintains funding for the Pell Grant program ($22.8 billion)—exempt from sequestration last year—which will also allow the maximum award size to increase next year due to a separate funding formula and source. Federal Work Study ($975 million) and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants ($733 million), as well as the TRIO programs ($838 million), were restored nearly to 2013 pre-sequestration levels.

Other aspects of the bill are more surprising. Although Congress is unlikely to pass President Obama’s proposed pre-K expansion as a standalone bill, lawmakers seem to have given the proposal a nod by providing some extra dollars to child care and pre-K. The Head Start program receives $8.6 billion under the proposed bill, up by $1 billion or nearly 14 percent, which more than restores funding cuts under sequestration.  The Child Care and Development Block Grant ($2.4 billion) also gets a small boost, and though Race to the Top ($250 million) is smaller by about half, it’s refocused. The funds will be used to expand pre-K, develop new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships ($500 million provided through Head Start), and build out high-quality pre-K programs for the president’s targeted demographic of low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. Race to the Top funds can be used for two kinds of grants: one to states with small or no pre-K programs, and the other to states with large pre-K programs. The Department of Education will set and report back to Congress a definition of high-quality pre-K, but is “expected” to work with the committees to do so. This workaround vastly increases the odds that the President and Democrats (plus a smattering of Republicans) in Congress will increase the numbers of children in high-quality pre-K programs.

Also surprising: a few changes to some key PreK-12 programs. The bill would not restore funding cuts under sequestration for the School Improvement Grant program ($506 million), but expands the length of the grants from three years to five. The bill also heralds the approval of two more acceptable models of school turnarounds, both included in Senator Harkin’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill that passed last summer: one is a “whole-school reform” strategy that allows schools to work with outside partners that have proven experience turning around schools, and the other is effectively any other school improvement strategy that garners the support of the U.S. Secretary of Education. And lawmakers restored pre-sequester funding and then some to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program ($90 million), including an $8 million set-aside from Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV)–a  grim reminder of more than one incident in the last year.

On the higher education side, Congress has funded for the first time one of President Obama’s signature proposal from his college affordability blueprint, first announced in 2012. The First in the World competition ($75 million) will offer grants to colleges and universities for new strategies to lower costs and improve student outcomes. (The agreement does not include the president’s proposed $10 million for a Pay for Success pilot program. But it would set aside $20 million for minority-serving institutions, as the president proposed.)

Additionally, the Office of Vocational and Adult Education would be renamed the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. That office gets a shot to its national activities program, with nearly $14 million available, including $3 million for prisoner re-entry education. Funding for the office writ large is set above 2013 post-sequester levels (but below pre-sequester levels), and the bill includes language urging the Department to focus on adult literacy.

The bill also contains two higher education provisions aimed at institutional burden and data. A set-aside of $1 million would allow the Department of Education to contract with the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council to study higher education regulations and reporting requirements. (For some of our reporting on the topic, see here and here.) Congress also indicated its desire to know more about outcomes for Pell Grant students. It requested the Department provide a report within four months that contains information on Pell Grant graduation rates by institution for AY 2012-13. The Department is expected to do this using the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), which is now able to track the attainment status of a student who received aid through a completion flag added last year. The extremely abbreviated timeline aside, getting this completion information in a useful format will be tricky. Since NSLDS cannot track all students due to the ban on a unit record system, there’s no way to present Pell completion rates in context. And they won’t match other graduation rates reported by colleges into the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

EdCentral will have much more coverage in the coming weeks – check back as Congress takes up the measure and considers a vote.

- See more at: http://www.edcentral.org/fiscal-year-2014-appropriations-bill-restores-f...