Education Advocates Facing Up to Budget Deal, Anticipating 2012 Fiscal Debate

Although, after many months of negotiations and a potential government shutdown, Congress and President Barack Obama finally agreed to a 2011 budget bill, the end result has been a mixed bag for education advocates. The deal will protect some vital programs while cutting others.

Cuts to the GEAR UP early college awareness program, and TRIO programs such as Talent Search and Upward Bound, are among the many provisions of the bill, which the House and Senate cleared in April. TRIO would lose $26 million of its $853 million budget, while GEAR UP would see its funding cut from $323 million to $303 million.

The moves brought widespread criticism from college access advocates. The Council for Opportunity in Education, which advocates for TRIO, says the provision would eliminate services for 90,000 students.

“We cannot and will not tolerate cuts to the TRIO program,” says COE President Arnold Mitchem.

COE is urging Talent Search and Upward Bound administrators to express their dissatisfaction directly to the White House. The 2011 budget, Mitchem says, “makes clear that TRIO is not among the core education priorities of the Obama administration. It is now up to us to change this stance.”

Another casualty is the year-round Pell Grant recently enacted to help students accelerate their studies. Obama had proposed eliminating this program next year, citing its unexpectedly high costs and the need to shore up the traditional Pell program. Congress went along with the request a year early, eliminating the policy for the current fiscal year.

However, the 2011 spending bill would maintain the current maximum Pell Grant at $5,550, which the White House and many advocacy organizations viewed as a major victory.

“Congress demonstrated bipartisan leadership to make sure the Pell Grant stayed at $5,550,” says Rich Williams, higher education advocate at U.S. PIRG. The budget also would provide level funding for large K-12 programs such as Title I grants. Head Start would receive a small increase, while the administration won continued funding for its signature K-12 reform plan, Race to the Top.

Yet the relief over finally approving a 2011 education budget bill did not last long. Williams noted that, a day after approving the 2011 budget, the House introduced and passed a 2012 budget that featured deep cuts to domestic spending. While the cuts are described as general across large categories of federal programs, the plan would cut more than $700 billion from labor, education, health and human service programs.

The plan is based on proposals from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the new chairman of the House Budget Committee. The White House already has outlined its opposition to the Ryan plan, which also includes a restructured Medicare program for those under age 50.