Federal “Full Funding" Debate

Education advocacy groups often criticize Congress and the President for not "fully funding" federal education programs, particularly Title I, during the appropriations process. They define "full funding" using the authorization levels stated in the legislation. Authorization levels in the legislation set the maximum amount at which Congress may fund a program in each year. In contrast, appropriation levels reflect the amount of money Congress actually spends on a program. The law does not require the federal government to appropriate funds at the maximum authorized levels.

Under ESEA’s last reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB), Congress never appropriated the maximum authorized funding level. This is a common practice for legislation that includes authorized levels, and will likely continue under the most recent reauthorization of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under NCLB, Congress authorized specific five-year funding levels for five of the 45 authorized programs, totaling $28.9 billion for fiscal year 2007 ($25 billion for Title I, Part A). The other 40 programs were authorized at specific amounts for the initial year of funding and at "such sums as may be necessary" for following years through 2007. Assuming a frozen level of funding for these 40 programs, the total authorized level for NCLB is commonly cited at $39.4 billion in fiscal year 2007.

The Title I, Part A grant program is the largest source of NCLB funding for school districts and is one of the five programs authorized at specific levels through fiscal year 2007. (In 2008, Congress voted to extend the 2007 authorization level into 2008, but has not done so since.) In the past, most reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have not included specific year by year authorization levels. Instead, the legislation has set an authorized funding level for the first year and "such sums as may be necessary" for succeeding years.

Since 2001, traditional federal appropriations for Title I have remained fairly flat, while the authorized levels in the legislation increase by $2 billion to $2.5 billion each year. As a result, Title I appropriations have become a smaller and smaller percentage of the authorized levels—from 76 percent of the authorized level in Fiscal Year 2002 to 56 percent of the authorized level in fiscal year 2008, the last year for which an authorization level was provided by the law. Additionally, Title I funds were sequestered in fiscal year 2013, as triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That meant funding for Title I grants dropped midyear for schools, though many districts had additional time to plan because most funding for the program comes through advance appropriations.

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