Schools lose in Senate stimulus ‘compromise’

Despite $1 billion in ed-tech funding and increases in college Pell Grants, education took a major hit when the U.S. Senate cut all $20 billion in proposed funding for school modernization from its version of the economic stimulus bill, which passed in that chamber on Feb. 10. The $20 billion appeared, and passed, in the House’s version of the bill late last month.

A scaled-back version of the stimulus bill passed in the Senate 61-37 after allocating roughly $80 billion for education altogether–much less than the $142 billion approved in the House version.

What once had reached a $937 billion figure was whittled down to $838 billion in the final Senate version of the bill as a result of negotiations by moderate Republican and Democratic senators. Many of the reductions came from proposed education spending, although education advocacy groups say schools and colleges still would get a huge boost in funding.

The $80 billion in the Senate bill is $21 billion more than the Department of Education’s FY2008 discretionary budget of $59 billion.

Besides eliminating all $20 billion in proposed funding for school modernization, the Senate’s bill reduces the House’s $79 billion in state stabilization funds–most of which would go to K-12 schools and state universities–to $39 billion.

Educational technology is slated to receive $1 billion, unchanged from the original Senate proposal–a number that ed-tech advocacy groups say is encouraging, though they’d like to see the school modernization funding restored in the final version of the bill. The Senate’s Feb. 10 vote sends the bill to a conference committee, setting up a final showdown among lawmakers as they work to find common ground on the stimulus package.

Special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would receive $13 billion in the newly approved Senate bill, the same as in the House version, and Title I would get $12.4 billion, slightly less than the $13 billion approved in the House.

The 100-member Senate is controlled by 56 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with them–but at least two Republican votes were needed, even if all Democrats voted for the measure, to reach 60 votes and avoid a filibuster.  Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Arlen Specter (Pa.) provided GOP support for the bill, which cleared the way for a simple majority vote on Feb. 10.

Moderate senators, led by Ben Nelson, D-Neb, and Collins, believed the package included unnecessary spending, and they identified programs in several areas for elimination, saying they favored a figure closer to $800 billion. Education was the hardest hit of these areas, losing roughly $60 billion in proposed funding during negotiations.

President Obama has asked for this education funding to be restored in the bill’s final version–particularly school modernization funding, which was cut so Collins and Specter would support the bill.

The Senate’s version of the bill also includes $14 billion to boost the maximum Pell Grant by $400, to $5,250. The House version includes nearly $16 billion to boost the maximum Pell Grant by $500, to $5,350.

The Senate bill trimmed spending on broadband grants from a proposed $9 billion figure down to $7 billion–but that’s still higher than the $6 billion included for broadband access in the House version.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the $39 billion in education aid to states that was approved by the Senate is not enough, and he noted that education jobs are at risk in the midst of state budget cuts.

Both the House and Senate bills call for the largest-ever funding increase for Pell Grants, the government’s chief college aid program for low-income students.

It will take much of the proposed $15.6 billion increase in the House version ($14 billion in the Senate) just to erase the existing funding shortfall and meet the surging demand as the economy sours and more students enroll.

Campus Progress, the youth division of the nonprofit Center for American Progress, emphasized the importance of education tax cuts that would enable students to enroll or remain in college despite the current economic crisis, which has forced many to take second jobs or drop out as a result.

"Without access to higher education, young people will be unable to compete on a global level with their peers. Campus Progress stands behind the provisions of the House stimulus bill that would increase funding for higher-education Pell Grants by as much as $15 billion. Student aid stimulates the economy in the long term by supporting education, which is the cornerstone of sustained economic growth."

Some education insiders said that while the Senate bill nixes funding for school modernization efforts, President Obama has been vocal about modernizing classrooms and might still prove an ally to education groups on that score, thereby preserving at least some of this funding in the bill’s final version.

But cuts of $40 billion for state and local governments in the Senate version were a big disappointment for college leaders. House and Senate negotiators will determine whether education aid to the states is relatively modest or massive–and how much gets directed to high-need institutions for building projects, versus elite universities that would benefit if the final package spends more of the money on scientific research.

On Jan. 28, the House passed an $819 billion stimulus package that targeted some $142 billion for education. The House version passed 244-188, with not a single Republican voting for the measure. (See story here).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi termed the reduced education funding "dangerous," and President Obama said he would like to see the Senate’s cuts to education restored.

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities estimates that combined state budget gaps over the next two years will total more than $350 billion, with 46 states–all except Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming–facing budget shortfalls.

"At the moment, my interest is in rebuilding the economy," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House education committee, when the House passed its version of the stimulus bill. Miller was responding to fears that such a huge influx of money for education would be hard to trim back when the economy brightens.

State governments are making dramatic cuts to education as revenue from sales and property taxes plummets, said Miller. Class sizes are set to rise, he said, and hundreds of thousands of teachers have gotten layoff notices.

"This is two-year money," Miller said. "As their revenue base is restored, as sales taxes start to grow, if the economy recovers and home values start to stabilize, [schools] will have to transition to return to reliance on that. But it’s clearly not in the national interest to have this system collapse at this moment in time."

Uncertainty over the final scope of the stimulus plan in Congress has delayed budget action in some states while governors and legislators wait to see how much federal relief they can expect for their cash-strapped programs.

Several governors have decided to hold up budgets until the stimulus bill is completed, while others have proposed budgets based on what they expect to receive and are keeping a watchful eye on House-Senate negotiations. Still others are crafting budgets that don’t rely on stimulus funding at all.

From here, the bill will move to a conference committee so Senate and House members can agree on a common version. The bill could be approved by mid-February, with President Obama aiming for passage by Presidents Day.


Text of the Senate bill

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

INNOVATIONS in K-12 Education


Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.