On Friday at midnight, if Congress does not approve the omnibus appropriations bill or a temporary funding bill, the federal government will shut down.
One of the more contentious sections of the omnibus appropriations bills determines funding for the Department of Education and our public school programs. While legislators face tough decisions and budget cutbacks, the difficult economic climate makes it even more important to adequately fund programs serving disadvantaged students and special populations.
Two of these core foundational programs are Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides funding to public schools with high numbers of low income students, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which directs federal funds to students with disabilities.
It is encouraging that the House version of the FY’12 appropriations bill includes the largest possible increases to these programs. Last week I led a bipartisan group of 75 lawmakers in sending a letter to the top four education appropriators in the House urging them to fight to keep the House-approved increases to these programs.
Under IDEA, the Federal Government has a commitment to pay 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure of every child in special education. Unfortunately, IDEA is consistently underfunded, with the current federal share at only 16.4 percent. This has resulted in school districts either raising taxes or cutting other critical programs, like art and music classes, to make up for the shortfall. The House-approved version includes a $1.2 billion increase for IDEA over last year’s funding.
Similarly, the House bill included an increase of $1 billion for Title I. The economic downturn in 2008 pushed roughly two million more children into poverty. Title I funds go to high-need areas and work to correct inequitable financing at the state and local level. Investing in the education of children from low income families has been shown as the best way to increase a child’s ability to succeed and prosper economically over the long run.
A child who was born into poverty shortly after WWII had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of reaching the middle class as an adult. If the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1 in 3 chance of making it to the middle class. Title I and IDEA funds contribute to a strong educational foundation that will help reverse this trend.
Falls Church and nearly all of Northern Virginia are home to some of the best public schools in the nation, but our schools represent the exception, not the rule. Even in our area, schools cannot afford the full cost of educating children with special needs. Time magazine reported that American students rank 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math – 17th in the world overall. We must afford every child in the United States the opportunity for a first-rate education.
As President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address nearly a year ago, our public schools play perhaps the most critical role in securing future success for the nation. The real solution to our long-term economic prosperity is to continue working to improve our education system. If we do not make meaningful investments in our schools now, our children will not be able to compete in an increasingly global economy.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.