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With passage of pared-down budget, Biden may have missed best chance for historic school funding windfall, advocates fear

Linda Jacobson | March 21, 2022

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President Joe Biden toured an arts-based afterschool program at Luis Muñoz Marin Elementary School in Philadelphia, on Friday, the day after the Senate passed a $1.5 trillion budget to fund federal programs through Oct. 1. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

With President Joe Biden’s major education spending proposals for high-poverty schools and students with disabilities left out of this year’s federal budget, some advocates are already shifting their attention to next year’s cycle.

But with even Biden concerned that Republicans could take control of the House — and Congress increasingly unable to pass an annual budget on time — the chances that K-12 schools can count on next year’s budget for a reprieve appear slim.

“I am hopeful that this is a down payment for what’s to come,” said José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools. Congress appropriated $75 million for schools that work with outside providers to address hunger, mental health, housing and other non-academic issues for families — an increase of $45 million. But Biden proposed a $413 million increase. Muñoz said he was disappointed by the “extreme shift.”

“Now, we all have to go back to work to correct what just happened,” he said.

The White House has already indicated that Biden will request at least $400 million for community schools when he releases his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal, expected later this month. Advocates also expect to see him once again request big increases for Title I and special education. But based on this year’s process, some are highly skeptical that Congress will be able to pass a budget before the midterm elections or break out of its cycle of passing multiple short-term budget extensions to keep the government operating.

“We’ll welcome the commitment to education … but we saw how that shook out this year,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. She added that she could see another series of continuing resolutions that stretch into the new year. “That brings up all the questions of who’s in leadership come January and how that shapes overall numbers and program allocations.”

The organization’s top priority will once again be full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,or IDEA — meaning that the federal government would pick up 40 percent of the costs of services for students with disabilities. Biden pledged that he would meet that requirement of the law. He proposed a $2.7 billion increase for fiscal 2022, but the budget includes far less — a $448 million increase — bringing the total to $14.5 billion.

AASA was hoping Congress would at least maintain the higher level of funding special education received under the American Rescue Plan, which provided an additional $2.5 billion for students with disabilities.

Congress is missing “a true opportunity to redirect itself forward on the IDEA glidepath,” Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, said in a statement. “We applaud them for the small increases included in [the] bill, while also holding them accountable for once again leaving IDEA severely underfunded.”

No more free meals for all

Domenech summed up educators’ less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the budget by calling it a “mixed bag.” The bill, for example, includes new funding to address students’ mental health and $30 million more for afterschool programs, but not a major increase for high-poverty schools.

The budget provides a $1.77 billion increase over fiscal 2021 for school nutrition, but leaves out waivers that would have allowed such programs to continue serving free meals to all students and have flexibility in meal planning to cope with food and supply shortages.

That means after more than two school years of free meals for all students, regardless of income, families in poverty will need to apply for the National School Lunch Program for the 2022-23 school year in order for their children to receive free or reduced-price meals.

And “given the pending financial crisis, schools will likely need to raise prices on those families that do pay” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. With the end of pandemic meal programs, schools will also “have to significantly curtail summer meal services,” she said.

Biden also campaigned on tripling Title I funding for high-poverty schools. He proposed a $20 billion “equity” grant program to help close funding gaps between rich and poor districts and between those serving primarily white students and those that enroll more Black and Hispanic students.

The budget instead raises Title I funding by $1 billion, bringing the total to $17.5 billion. That’s the highest increase in more than a decade, but doesn’t include the new funding to reduce disparities.

“The Title I equity grants would have given the neediest districts greater assurance that they could continue effective academic interventions beyond the pandemic,” said Robert Tagorda, who led equity initiatives in California’s Long Beach Unified School District and now consults with districts on their recovery efforts. “Districts are coming to terms with the one-time nature of COVID relief funds. They’re wondering how they can sustain the tutorials, summer programs and other student services once the funds expire, knowing that it will take a long time to get kids back on track.”

Advocates for young children had a similar response after being hopeful last year that Biden would be able to push through his $400 billion plan to pay for child care and universal pre-K as part of Build Back Better. That legislation is now stalled and it’s unclear whether universal pre-K will resurface in a new version of the bill.

For fiscal 2022, Biden originally proposed almost $20 billion for early-childhood programs, including Head Start and child care. The budget bill instead provides about $17.5 billion for programs serving preschoolers.

“Without more significant funding increases, these programs will continue to serve only a small portion of the children and families that are eligible to participate in them,” said Aaron Loewenberg, a senior policy analyst at New America, a center-left think tank.

Other advocacy groups say their recent lobbying efforts made a difference in the final numbers. The National Association of Secondary School Principals, for example, sent 350 members to Capitol Hill two weeks ago to press for increases in principal preparation programs and mental health services for students — a topic Biden addressed in his State of the Union address.

The budget includes a $27 million increase for state grants that fund teacher and principal training and $111 million —  a $95 million increase over fiscal 2021 — that can be used to train more school counselors, social workers and psychologists. Beth Lehr, assistant principal at Sahuarita High School, south of Tucson, Arizona, was among the administrators advocating for those increases to address the aftermath of the pandemic. There are some teachers, she said, “who dread coming to work and parents who are struggling because they feel they can’t keep their kids safe.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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