Partisan differences within Congress on education spending and policy are coming to a head. Appropriations committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have drafted competing education spending proposals for federal Fiscal Year 2012, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) plans to take up legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by the end of October. The House has already begun passing bills to reauthorize portions of ESEA using a piecemeal approach.

Spending decisions do not appear to be getting any easier to achieve within Congress, as evidenced by the narrowly averted showdown between the House and Senate on how to respond to an unexpected shortfall in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA ultimately determined it did not need emergency spending to cover higher than usual disaster response efforts. That agency aside, Congress still needs to decide on spending levels for federal programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Legislators have approved a short-term spending bill (known as a “continuing resolution”) to fund government agencies through mid-November, allowing more time to reach agreement on appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year. Although the deficit reduction and debt ceiling increase agreement enacted at the beginning of August established that total discretionary spending for FY 2012 would be $1.043 trillion, Congress still must decide how to allocate this money to federal programs.

In late September, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a FY 2012 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that included $68.43 billion for the Department of Education, slightly more than the $68.35 billion the agency received in FY 2011. The bill would “flat fund” most federal education programs at the same level at which they were funded the previous year. This includes the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program (ESSCP), which would receive $52.395 million for FY 2012. Both the GEAR UP ($302.8 million) and TRIO ($826.5 million) programs would also be flat funded under the Senate bill.

The House Appropriations Committee has not formally considered a Labor-Health and Human Services-Education spending bill, but committee leaders have released a draft of such a measure. As with the Senate’s bill, the proposal includes roughly $69 billion in funding for education programs for FY 2012. Another similarity with the Senate’s bill is that the House draft measure would maintain a Pell Grant maximum award of $5,500. However, the House’s proposal would tighten eligibility for Pell Grants. Lifetime eligibility would be reduced from nine years to six years, and students attending school less than half the time or who do not possess a high school diploma would be ineligible for assistance. In addition, the draft House bill would eliminate funding for ESSCP and the $175 million Mathematics and Science Partnerships program, while flat funding GEAR UP and TRIO. However, the House bill includes $1 billion increases both for Title I grants and special education funding.

House and Senate members will attempt to reconcile these competing priorities for education spending within a broader omnibus spending bill during the next few weeks. The American Counseling Association will continue its work with other education advocacy organizations to encourage continued support for federal spending on services provided by school counselors and other specialized instructional support personnel.

Senate committee to consider ESEA reauthorization legislation

Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced that the Senate HELP Committee would consider legislation to reauthorize ESEA by mid-October. The markup follows several months of closed-door negotiations between Harkin’s office and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the committee.

At press time, Enzi had not indicated whether he and other Republicans on the committee support the legislative language Harkin intended to present for consideration. Prior to Harkin’s announcement, four Senate Republicans — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Kirk of Illinois — joined in introducing four separate bills to reauthorize ESEA. The legislation put forward by the four senators tracks the piecemeal approach to reauthorization favored by House Republicans. As with legislation approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee (H.R. 1891), the bill introduced by Burr (S. 1569) would eliminate ESSCP and several other existing federal education programs.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate can approve ESEA reauthorization legislation with bipartisan support. A significant impetus for reauthorization was removed at the end of September, when President Obama announced that the Department of Education would let states apply for waivers from key requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for adopting standards for college and career readiness, using teacher evaluations and improving the most troubled schools.

For more information on federal education policy affecting school counselors, contact Scott Barstow at