Few bright spots for students as House moves forward on education budget

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By Amanda Litvinov / photo by Ron Cogswell

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A House subcommittee went to work yesterday to dole out severely limited dollars for education and other non-defense programs, with frightening results for students and educators.

Committee members were forced to slash education programs, which are already at record low levels because the current budget deal takes more from non-defense programs—including education—and does nothing to end the austerity measures known as the sequester cuts.

The FY 2016 Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Bill slashes funding for the Department of Education by $2.8 billion, an even bigger cut than the one that resulted from the FY2013 sequester.

The situation is incredibly concerning to educators, who know that targeted federal dollars can greatly improve their ability to meet the needs of every student who walks through the schoolhouse doors.

“Here’s my question for federal lawmakers: How can you hold us to the same high standards and provide fewer and fewer resources?” asked Patricia Bloom, an elementary teacher from Macomb, Illinois.

“We recently had to cut three certified staff and seven program assistants from a district staff of around 120. Our classes are now unreasonably large,” she said. “We were already struggling to serve a special education population of nearly 15 percent, a population identified as at-risk at about 25-30 percent, and 53 percent of students from low-income families.”

One of the very few bright spots in yesterday’s markup was the $500 million increase for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Hundreds of parents, educators and allies have spoken out on this issue in the past few months by participating in EducationVotes.org’s campaign to issue invoices to Congress for the amount of special education funding owed to their state for the 2014-15 school year.

Congress promised to help fund the education of special needs students when it passed IDEA 40 years ago. But in that time, it has never met even half of its funding obligation, leaving states scrambling to cover the law’s mandates by raising taxes or making painful cuts elsewhere in their budgets.

“Federal dollars help keep special education classes smaller, so teachers can give each student more individualized attention,” said North Carolina special education teacher Samantha Jarecki. “We already have too many students on our caseload to do our very best work, and if we continue to take on more students with no new staff, the quality of our services will further deteriorate.”

Fortunately for students in Jarecki’s school and others across the nation, special education funding will not deteriorate further next year.

The IDEA increase of more than $500 million in the FY 2016 bill increases the federal share of special education funding to states from 16 percent to 17 percent, still a far cry from the 40 percent commitment specified in the law.

Although Chairman Tom Cole’s (R-OK) effort to provide increases for IDEA and other critical programs—including Head Start, Impact Aid and Indian Education—should be noted, those increases came at the expense of other programs that help vulnerable students.

Among the programs eliminated entirely are School Improvement State Grants, Striving Readers, School Counseling, Investing in Innovation, Advanced Placement, Full-Service Community Schools, and Arts in Education.

The bill also freezes funding for Title I grants, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Promise Neighborhoods and English Language Acquisition, all of which help eliminate barriers to learning faced by our most vulnerable students.

Without question, this latest slate of cuts and freezes sets back efforts to provide equal opportunity for all of our students, regardless of where they live, how wealthy or poor their families are, and the unique academic challenges they face.

Congress proved they can work in a bipartisan fashion when they passed the Murray-Ryan budget deal in 2013. Call upon your members of Congress to build upon that work, and pass a better budget for students and families.

“I’ll extend an open invitation to lawmakers,” said Illinois’ Patricia Bloom. “Please come visit my classroom. Visit us in the trenches and feel our students’ pain.”

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