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Congress Serves Up a Freshly Baked CRomnibus

Last night, the House of Representatives Committee on the Rules released the text of a federal spending bill that will fund most federal programs through the remainder of fiscal year 2015, averting a shutdown. In the grand tradition of awful clever D.C. puns, the bill is being referred to as the “CRomnibus,” since it combines a continuing resolution (CR) for one agency with funding through next September for the rest of the federal government. Though the bill has yet to pass the House or Senate, lawmakers ironed out many of their differences before releasing the text of the bill and it is widely expected to be voted into law in the coming days.

So what’s actually in the bill? Overall, it shows mostly stagnant education funding mixed in with a few tiny increases. The Pell Grant award size is unchanged, but Congress still made relatively small cuts to the program. And it spells the end of the Race to the Top program, which had seen its funding steadily cut over several years before its elimination this year.

PreK-12 Education

The bill would appropriate $2.4 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $8.1 billion to Head Start -- slightly higher levels than were provided last year. It would also continue funding for the new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership program. (The first round of grants under this program will be announced today.)

The larger federal PreK-12 education programs--Title I grants for disadvantaged students and IDEA special education grants to states--fared slightly better than they did last year, with almost-$13 million and $25 million increases, respectively, to $14.4 billion and $11.5 billion. School Improvement Grants received the same $505 million in funding, with legislative language virtually identical to last year’s giving states the option to make longer, five-year awards to districts and granting school districts the option to use either whole-school reform models or another, Department of Education-approved model in place of the program’s already-established four school turnaround models.

The Striving Readers program also got a slight bump, from $157 million last year to $160 million this year; and the Math and Science Partnerships program got a $3-million boost, from $149 million last year to nearly $153 million this year. Even Preschool Development Grants, a relatively new program included in last year’s budget, and the Promise Neighborhoods program would be appropriated $250 million and close to $57 million, respectively, again this year.

But not all of the smaller programs were so lucky. Notably, Race to the Top, a signature Obama administration initiative, is defunded in the bill. The Investing in Innovation budget was cut from nearly $142 million last year to $120 million this year. And the Teacher Incentive Fund program, which received almost $289 million last year, had $59 million slashed from its budget. A handful of very small programs also appear to have been defunded in the bill. In part, some of those cuts could be a way for lawmakers to make room for a new, $14-million appropriation that would provide educational services to the unaccompanied minors who were flooding into the country earlier this year.

Higher Education and the Workforce

The two biggest higher education questions in the weeks leading up to the bill’s release were whether Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) would succeed in his push to spend $2 billion out of the current Pell surplus on other initiatives and if Republicans would be able to block the Department from implementing its regulations holding career education programs accountable for their results.

The latter did not make it into the bill at all. The push to repurpose Pell funding was only partially successful. In response to significant opposition from both the left and the right (and New America), the bill only moves $303 million out of the Pell surplus. The additional money will cover the increased costs of student loan servicing, which had been previously understated through the use of since-eliminated mandatory money. While moving this money away from the Pell surplus will potentially create problems dealing with expected future shortfalls, it does not affect the current program. The maximum Pell Grant award will still rely on mandatory dollars to increase by $100 as scheduled.

The most welcome policy change is a provision that would restore Ability to Benefit (ATB), a provision that until 2009, allowed students who hadn’t received a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for federal student aid if they passed an approved Ability to Benefit test. This bill would restore access to aid for ATB students who are enrolled in career pathway programs and pass a test. That’s good news for students -- we called for a similar move in our Rebalancing Resources and Incentives report. But the policy also says some new ATB students can only receive the portion of the Pell Grant funded by appropriations, for a maximum $4,860 grant (h/t to Bryce McKibben for catching this). For more on the ATB provision and how it connects to career pathways and workforce development policy, check out this EdCentral post from Mary Alice McCarthy.

There was only one notable cut on the higher education side. The biggest cut was to the First in the World program, an evidence-based competition focused on college success and completion, which shrunk from $75 to $60 million. Congress also asked the Department for a lot more information about what took place in the first competition, which ran last year.

Everywhere else spending was either slightly increased or flat among higher education programs. Federal Work-Study received a $15 million boost, the biggest increase of any postsecondary program. Funds for historically black colleges, minority-serving institutions, and other programs, were increased slightly. TRIO, a conglomeration of nine different federal programs that mostly work on college access, also received a slight $1.5 million increase. It also successfully secured a call from Congress to force the Department to issue applications for the Student Support Services competition by next Thursday (December 18). Given that the competition windows usually run 30 to 60 days, that effectively means potential applicants will have to start working on their proposals over the Christmas holidays.

A few other changes merit mention. First, the bill requires the Department to add a flag for applicants who are or were foster children to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Department would then use those data to target those applicants for additional information about their federal student aid eligibility. Lawmakers also reiterated a call for the Department to produce a report on the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients at institutions -- a product they requested last year but that never came to fruition. And language in the bill reiterates that states can continue to develop their federal data systems -- and link statewide PreK-12, early ed, higher education, and workforce data.

One thing that’s not present: any mention of the Perkins Loan program, which is currently set to expire without legislative intervention. That means, if the Republican House and Senate don’t take up a reauthorization of the loan program next year, students will no longer be able to access Perkins loans. 

Check back with EdCentral for more analysis on the CRomnibus bill--and its forthcoming passage in Congress--in the coming weeks.

12:45 PM This post was updated to include more information on the Ability to Benefit provision's maximum Pell Grant.