By Amanda Litvinov
At hearings in the House and Senate this week, several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle stood up for students and schools by questioning whether competitive grants can fulfill the federal government’s greatest role in education: to reduce inequities and help public schools serve all children.
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Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who testified before appropriations committees in the House on Tuesday and in the Senate on Wednesday, was challenged by both Republicans and Democrats regarding the increasing emphasis on competitive grants at the cost of long-standing formula grants.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran gave a concrete example: His home state of Kansas is home to many rural schools that have already been identified as target recipients of funding through the ConnectEd program for increasing broadband access. Yet they would be asked to compete with other deserving schools for those dollars, which in and of itself takes resources.
“We just don’t have school districts that are likely to be able to compete,” he said. “They don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the grant-writing expertise.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oreg.) said he’s heard from educators in smaller schools all over his state that they are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for federal dollars.
Merkley expressed concern that the President’s FY 2015 budget request would increase competitive funding from 10% to 16%.
Sens. Moran and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) both expressed disappointment that there are no proposed increases for Title I and IDEA, both longstanding concerns of educators.
“Every week I receive calls from members struggling with the impacts of cuts to special education,” said Connie Compton, a special education teacher of 30 years and president of her local association in Kent, Washington.
“We know early intervention can make a significant difference, but without funding, programs and staffing are cut and students pay the price,” said Compton.
“The intent of IDEA is becoming a pipe dream and the long-term damage of underfunding will likely impact our education, social and health systems for years to come.”
A new analysis of what flat funding of IDEA and Title I has done indicates Compton is not overstating the issue. Title I funding for schools serving low-income students is already underfunded by $3.6 billion or $53,000 for each Title I school. The federal government’s failure to fully fund IDEA shifted $1 billion in costs for special education this year alone.
During the House hearing, it was Rep. Kline (R-Minn.) who spoke up for funding IDEA. He said fulfilling its funding obligation to special education students is the most important thing the federal government could do for schools.
Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Mark Takano (R-Calif.) turned their attention to the fact that the House passed the Ryan Budget last month, which Rep. Fudge deemed “neither fiscally nor morally sound.”
The Ryan budget would have an immediate and devastating impact on all federal education funding. In fiscal year 2016, it would reinstate the sequester cuts, and go on to cut as much as 22% more by 2024.
“The funding that public education receives has already been drastically cut,” said Inamarie Bowling, a teacher in Troy, Ill. “Teachers are cut, resources are cut, programs are cut, and adding more students to each classroom only pushes our children down one more rung.”
“How is that going to provide a fair and equal education for all?”