Federal Dateline

Grab What You’re Due When Budget Crashes


"Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it." And repeat it and repeat it.

If this fall is anything like the past five years here in Washington, D.C., September will bring us another train wreck. While there won’t be mangled train tracks, overturned cars or physical injuries, this train wreck will look as if it was carrying the entire contents of a Christmas tree warehouse with holiday ornaments scattered everywhere. With a sixth crash looming, you’d think Congress would learn how to steer the train more steadily.

Now let me decipher this scenario and explain why educators should care.

AASA has been working with Congress over the past 18 months on a bill called the Rural Education Initiative. This program would offer additional dollars to small, rural school districts instead of the current piecemeal programs. It would also give districts additional funding to help hire a teacher, pay for signing bonuses, hire reading specialists, participate in distance learning or any other expenditure that would help reading or mathematics achievement levels. The overall cost of the Rural Education Initiative is $62.5 million. That’s chump change in federal spending terms.

The bill handily passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was well on its way to passing in the Senate when sex, drugs and guns materialized and stalled the process. The rural bill is one small section in the overall K-12 bill that authorizes most of the programs operated in public schools, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Several members of Congress wanted to amend the bill to include legislation relating to controversial issues like gun control so the entire bill, including the rural bill, was stalled from moving forward.

Keep a Commitment
At the same time that Congress was pointing its fingers across the aisle claiming the other folks killed the reauthorization of ESEA, members of Congress were working on the federal education funding provision, known as the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriation bill. These three federal agencies receive their funding through this single bill.

This education spending bill (and another dozen just like it, one for each federal agency) must be enacted every year to provide the money to operate the agencies, their programs and the like. With the education spending bill, AASA is advocating that federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which oversees special education programs, be funded fully as an entitlement program. This would mean the federal government would pay its original promise of 40 percent for educating students with special needs.

For the past five years the appropriations process has gone something like this: the House and the Senate pass their separate spending bills, then they combine their bills and send the spending measure to the president who immediately vetoes the bill because it’s loaded with voucher language and the funding levels for education are lower than what the president is comfortable with. As the fiscal year comes to an end, the train wreck starts. The federal government threatens to close, and the House and Senate finally acquiesce to the president’s demand. (Remember, this is how we got the program for 100,000 new teachers.) The money is found somewhere, increasing not only K-12 education programs, but everyone’s pet projects, known as "Christmas tree ornaments" or "pork."

With the ESEA reauthorization bill stalled and with many rural, small school district superintendents wanting additional funds for assistance with reading and mathematics curriculum, increased professional development opportunities or updated technology, AASA came up with Plan B.

Plan B Launched
While it is not our style to fund education programs before they are law, in this instance we are willing to bend--we want our very own Christmas tree ornament. With the train wreck near and no Rural Education Initiative in sight, superintendents are lining up for a program that is not yet law. AASA is willing to ask Congress to fund this important program, but we need your help.

When you make your weekly call to your elected members of Congress, ask them to make IDEA an entitlement, fund it fully and ensure the states do the same. If you are a superintendent of a small, rural district, make sure you also ask for their support in funding the REI. Explain what an additional $50,000 or so means to your district.

If you haven’t yet registered, you are invited to Washington, D.C., for our Educators’ Call to Action conference, Sept. 17-19. While we have hosted similar advocacy conferences in the past, this year’s format is different. Attendees will continue to be briefed on what is happening on Capitol Hill, but more of your time will be spent walking the hallowed halls, offering your thoughts and opinions to your elected officials.

The end of September is an exciting time to be in Washington. Not only will the train wreck be in progress, the conductors won’t know how to pull the brakes to stop it. Make a grab for those ornaments and ensure your programs for students with disabilities are fully funded and that additional funds are available for the smallest, more isolated districts.

More information on the Call to Action conference, which is sponsored by the Association of Educational Service Agencies in cooperation with AASA can be found at www.aasa.org.

Kari Arfstrom is director of special projects in the public affairs department at AASA.