Ed tech unfunded in $1 trillion spending bill

A new federal spending bill has major implications for Pell Grant recipients.

Congress has passed a $1 trillion omnibus spending measure that continues funding for the Obama administration’s signature “Race to the Top” competition and includes a very modest increase in Title I funding for disadvantaged students. But an Obama proposal to create a new federal agency for ed-tech research and development received no funding in the bill.

The measure, which averted a possible government shutdown, funds 10 Cabinet agencies for fiscal year 2012. It awarded a slight increase to the Pentagon and veterans’ programs while trimming the budgets of most other domestic agencies. Democrats agreed to the cuts in exchange for dropping many policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives, such as attempts to block new rules aimed at preserving net neutrality and limiting greenhouse gases.

President Obama’s cherished “Race to the Top” initiative, which encourages state and local education reforms, will absorb more than a 20-percent cut, though Republicans wanted to kill the program’s funding altogether. Title I grants will be funded at $14.5 billion, and special education funding will receive $11.6 billion—virtually the same as last year.

Missing from the legislation was funding to create a new federal agency designed to pursue breakthroughs in educational technology. Obama requested $90 million for the agency’s first year in the budget plan he sent to Congress earlier this year.

Obama’s proposal would have created an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED), with the goal of transforming educational technology just as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has transformed military technology. But the project wasn’t funded in the budget bill passed by Congress.

With the Enhancing Education Through Technology program having been eliminated last year, “that amounts to zero dollars of federal investments in ed tech” through the U.S. Department of Education, an educational technology advocate on Capitol Hill noted. “How is this preparing schools for online assessments in 2014?”

The maximum Pell Grant awards for low-income college students will remain at $5,550 for students beginning college in fall 2012, but Congress has tightened its requirements for the program under the new bill.

Students who do not complete their undergraduate degrees in six years will lose Pell Grant funding; previously, students were eligible for Pell Grants as long as they completed their undergraduate degrees in nine years. The change is expected to save the federal government about $11 billion over the next decade.

It’s estimated that about 100,000 students would be affected by this change, said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications for the advocacy group Education Trust. Students who take that long to get a degree typically are either transfer students who don’t receive full credit for previous coursework or those working and supporting a family, Wilkins said. Some, she said, will be surprised to learn they might have to come up with thousands of dollars to make up the difference.

“For those 100,000 kids, it’s pretty bad,” Wilkins said.

The bill also reduces the income level under which a student will be eligible to receive the maximum Pell Grant amount, from $30,000 to $23,000, and it eliminates a six-month grade period on federal student loan payments. What’s more, it requires recipients to have a high school diploma, a GED certificate, or complete a home-schooling program to receive a Pell Grant.

As more low-income students have enrolled in college during a weak economy, spending on Pell Grants has exploded, nearly doubling in just over two years to $34.8 billion. In 2008-09, according to data collected by the College Board, 6.2 million students received Pell Grants averaging $2,945; in 2010-11, 9.1 million students received grants averaging $3,828.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, released a statement that read: “The modest increase in funding for priorities such as … Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Head Start, and child care—while welcome—is less than what is needed.”

She added: “We appreciate Congress’s efforts to maintain the maximum Pell Grant award but are concerned about the new eligibility barriers that may prevent low-income students from accessing the program and attending college.”

The bill also delays implementation of new guidelines for marketing unhealthy food to children until the Federal Trade Commission can study the costs of the effort.

The voluntary guidelines proposed by the government earlier this year set maximum levels of fat, sugars, and sodium and asked food companies not to market foods that go beyond those levels to children ages 2 through 17. That could limit colorful cartoon characters on cereal packages, television ads, and product websites.

The food industry, backed by Republicans in Congress, has lobbied aggressively against the guidelines. They say the guidelines are too broad and would limit marketing of almost all of the nation’s favorite foods, including yogurts and many children’s cereals. Though the guidelines would be voluntary, food companies say they fear the government will retaliate against them if they don’t go along.

The bill passed in the House on Dec. 16 by a vote of 296-121. The Senate approved the measure on Dec. 17, with a 67-32 vote. It now goes to President Obama for approval.

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