President Trump has once again proposed huge cuts to federal education spending — this time structuring those reductions as part of a plan to convert billions in federal aid into block grants.
Those plans have already been largely dismissed by members of Congress, who have suggested they have little appetite for the president’s budget proposal. That’s no surprise: Lawmakers have rejected Trump’s ideas in years past for making historically deep cuts to education.
Given that political reality, what do K-12 companies need to know about what the next year holds federal education spending? A number of analysts predicted in interviews with EdWeek Market Brief that Congress is likely to sustain or slightly increase spending for the U.S. Education Department through next budget year, fiscal 2021.
One factor that will restrict Congress’ ability to increase funding are statutory funding constraints that limit overall appropriations, according to analysts.
“I don’t expect a decrease, but I think we’re probably looking at levels that are very similar to what Congress provided for Fiscal Year 2020,” which is the current fiscal year, said Reg Leichty, a founding partner of Foresight Law+Policy, an education consultancy.
A congressional aide said that House appropriators will likely seek a continuation of fiscal 2020 Education Department spending or “modest increases at best,” compared with the $72.7 billion in discretionary funds that Congress enacted for fiscal 2020.
But Congress is going to be “much more restrained” than prior years in terms of how much it can increase education funding, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Looking back, when Congress developed draft spending legislation for the current fiscal year, House appropriators originally outlined $75.9 billion for the Education Department for fiscal 2020, before a compromise with the Senate produced a final appropriation of $72.7 billion. Congress had enacted $71.1 billion in spending for the department in fiscal 2019.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 increases the cap on non-defense discretionary spending from roughly $622 billion for fiscal 2020 to roughly $627 billion for fiscal 2021, a $5 billion raise. By contrast, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 had increased the cap on non-defense discretionary spending from $597 billion to $622 billion, a $25 billion raise.
This means there’s significantly less room to increase discretionary funding for any non-defense-related federal program, including education, in fiscal 2021 than there was during the fiscal 2020 budget cycle.
Other Commitments Will Squeeze Education
Congress has already committed to spend more on specific areas of the budget, like veteran’s health issues, for fiscal 2021, which will leave little federal funding for other discretionary programs, like education, said Sarah Abernathy, deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a group that advocates for education funding.
The federal education budget supports programs that schools rely heavily on, and which districts use to pay for programs and services. Those include the Title I program, funded at about $16 billion annually, as well as Title II and Title IV.
“The only way Congress will increase funding for some programs in education is if they cut from another,” she said.
In three of the last four years, Congress has rescinded money from the Pell Grant Program reserve fund and reallocated it toward other educational priorities, Abernathy mentioned.
Released earlier this month, the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget seeks to cut Education Department discretionary spending by about 8 percent, to $66.6 billion.
It is the fourth straight time that Trump has sought to cut the Education Department’s budget. Congress has bucked all of Trump’s calls for decreases, responding by approving small increases in each of the past three federal appropriations bills.
This appropriations cycle, any funding increase proposed by the House could prompt a skirmish between the chambers over how much funds should be carried into final spending legislation, Abernathy and Leichty said.
Abernathy pointed to last appropriations cycle, when the Democrat House and Republican Senate ultimately adopted a compromise after Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who leads the Senate subcommittee that marks up education spending, had released a proposal that would have frozen funding for almost every Education Department program.
“It’s an election year, and members will want to highlight their vision for the budget,” Leichty said. “I think a Democratic House has a different vision than a Republican Senate.”
Last year, party differences played out “pretty dramatically,” with the House proposing an overall 6 percent increase in education spending, he said.
“Congress has repeatedly refused to enact the President’s requested cuts to funding,” Abernathy said. “I don’t think that that will change this year.”
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