Our Future Competitiveness Hangs in the Balance

Federal Education Programs Brace for Coming Congressional Budget Fights

Diana Epstein examines how the main Republican plans to cut federal spending indiscriminately target some of our nation’s most important education programs.

Teacher Dany Chhy, left, leads a drill as preschoolers line up before their lunch break at a Head Start program in Hillsboro, Oregon, Thursday, August 16, 2007. Under H.R. 1, funding for Head Start would be cut by $1 billion, eliminating almost 196,000 enrollment slots for low-income children nationwide. (AP/Greg Wahl-Stephens)
Teacher Dany Chhy, left, leads a drill as preschoolers line up before their lunch break at a Head Start program in Hillsboro, Oregon, Thursday, August 16, 2007. Under H.R. 1, funding for Head Start would be cut by $1 billion, eliminating almost 196,000 enrollment slots for low-income children nationwide. (AP/Greg Wahl-Stephens)

This year’s federal budget process in Washington promises to be even more divisive than usual as a split Congress struggles to tackle both the need to keep the government funded and the looming federal deficit. Furthermore, lawmakers are actually dealing with two budgets simultaneously—one for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, which ends in September of this year, and one for the FY2012 budget beginning in October. President Barack Obama plans to release his FY2012 budget during the week of February 14 and Republicans have indicated they will roll out their plan for a new FY2011 “continuing resolution” to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year that week as well.

Federal investment in education hangs in the balance.

House Republicans, led by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), propose to cut $32 billion from the federal budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. Since the government is currently operating under a continuing resolution that expires March 4, these proposed cuts would take place over only a seven-month period. Rep. Ryan wants to increase security- and defense-related spending by almost $8 billion above current levels, which means that cuts to nonsecurity agencies such as education would total more than $42 billion. Moreover, his proposed budget for FY2011 would be $32 billion less than current spending levels but $74 billion less than what the president had originally requested.

The upshot: Spending for education, labor, and health and human services would be 4 percent less than 2010 levels and 8 percent less than the president’s original request, according to the information announced by the chair of the House Appropriations committee last week.

This approach runs directly counter to the Obama administration’s plans to invest in education to ensure our workforce remains competitive in the 21st century. In his State of the Union address, the president made clear that he favors strong continued funding for education. And investing in education is without a doubt the key to economic growth and American competitiveness. Nonetheless, the Republicans’ plans have budget cuts falling disproportionately on education and health programs because entitlements and defense spending are largely protected. So let’s examine what they propose to cut.

Republican plans to cut critical education funding

As the proposals below illustrate, conservative Republicans are arguing for even bigger cuts—up to $100 billion—for FY2011 and then further cuts in the FY2012 budget. This would likely entail significant cuts to federal education programs. If enacted, these proposals would make it far more difficult to effectively educate this generation of American children.

The Republican Study Committee proposal—the Spending Reduction Act of 2011—would reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over 10 years. The plan cuts FY 2011 nonsecurity, nondefense, and nonveterans discretionary spending to FY 2008 levels; cuts nondefense discretionary spending to FY 2006 levels for FY2012–FY2021; eliminates all remaining stimulus funding; and eliminates or dramatically scales back more than 100 other programs. This includes eliminating 68 federal education programs run by the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services; the Environmental Protection Agency; and other federal agencies.

Provisions governing federal education programs would be repealed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Early Learning Opportunities Act, parts of the Higher Education Act, and others. While some of these programs should be eliminated because they are outdated or ineffective, other programs serve valuable purposes and should be consolidated or reformed. Rather than simply cutting education funding as the RSC recommends, these funds should be redirected and targeted at efforts that reflect current priorities and have demonstrated results.

Rep. Ryan put forth an alternate budget in 2008 (further revised last year) entitled “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” The Roadmap’s most detailed recommendations are for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but the plan also assumes that nondefense discretionary spending would be frozen at nominal 2009 levels from 2010 through 2019. Beginning in 2020, spending in all areas except Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and net interest would grow at the rate of inflation plus 0.7 percentage points. Ryan’s plan also rescinds all unobligated stimulus funding. Freezing spending at these levels would not provide the investment in education that is needed in order to improve student achievement and produce the American workforce of the future.

Then there is the plan from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). He released a budget proposal last month that would cut $500 billion from the federal budget in one year. In spite of holding a seat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Sen. Paul put forth a plan that would cut funding to the Department of Education by 83 percent, to only $16.245 billion. Paul’s plan preserves only Pell Grants, which means that critical funding for elementary and secondary education would be eliminated. Among other cuts, districts and schools serving a high percentage of low-income children would no longer receive Title I supplemental funding, and states would no longer receive Title II money to improve teacher and principal quality.

Why these cuts are so destructive

Any of these proposed cuts to education would be quite harmful. First of all, continued investment in education is critical in order to put our economy on the path to sustained growth. Second, a reduction in federal support for education would take resources away from critically important programs at a time when states are also making significant cuts. Third, federal education programs provide more equitable resources for students who need it most—without federal support, many hard-fought gains would erode for children living in poverty.

Fortunately, the American people simply will not support cuts of this magnitude in education. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans whether they favor or oppose cuts in government spending in a number of areas. Two-thirds opposed cuts in education, opposition greater than any other area including Social Security, Medicare, and national defense. This public sentiment holds up even when Americans are given a choice between reducing the federal budget deficit or preventing cuts to government programs. When asked whether it was more important to reduce the deficit or prevent cuts in education, respondents to a recent CNN poll chose to preserve education by a margin of 75 percent to 25 percent.

With power split between the two political parties, this year’s budget process will inevitably result in a series of compromises. The proposed plans for cuts to education represent one end of the spectrum from which bargaining will begin. It is true that our country faces tough decisions ahead but our children’s future is not a matter fit for negotiation.

Diana Epstein is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. To learn more about the Center’s education policy recommendations go to the Education page of our website.

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