Higher education reauthorization and appropriations for federal programs top the education priorities as Congress is back in session.  Even if the House 2020 appropriations were to be enacted into law, six of eight major programs lag inflation since 2011. Child nutrition legislation and rulemaking are also in the news from Washington, DC, and the U.S. Department of Education released its October Education Almanac.

Higher Education Reauthorization

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) announced a comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  The College Affordability Act will reportedly provide more grant aid and services for students while requiring more accountability for student outcomes from higher education institutions.

The Washington Post published this article on what’s expected to be in the bill, including some items also included in a recent proposal from Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), such as allowing prisoners to get Pell grants and simplifying the federal application for student aid. Alexander has been open to tackling reauthorization through a series of piecemeal bills, while Democrats have pushed for a single comprehensive reauthorization that deals with all the major issues.

The House bill reportedly will:

  • Provide annual inflationary indexes for the maximum Pell grant
  • Eliminate origination fees on student loans and creates one standard 10-year repayment plan and one income-based repayment plan that requires no payments until a borrower’s income exceeds 250% of the federal poverty line
  • Create a grant to address emergency needs of low-income students
  • Create a federal-state partnership in support of tuition-free community college
  • Prioritize some new assistance for colleges serving those needing academic help, minority students, and low-income students

Federal Funding Lags Inflation

The proposed FY 2020 funding for most of the largest Education Department programs is just at or below 2011 level in real terms. Current funding for almost all the Department of Education’s biggest programs is below the fiscal year (FY) 2011 level in inflation-adjusted terms, and even the increases for FY 2020 in the House-passed funding bill do not bring many of the programs up to their 2011 levels in real terms.

FY 2011 was chosen as the starting point because that year was the Department of Education highest total discretionary funding until FY 2018. Most of these eight big programs actually had higher funding in FY 2012 than in FY 2011, so this analysis is not picking the highest possible starting point from which to measure. The analysis does not measure growth in the population or growth in need for funding; it just shows how far Congress still has to go to bring most of these programs back to the level of purchasing power they had in FY 2011.

  • Current FY 2019 funding for six of the eight programs is below the inflation-adjusted 2011 level:
    • Title I state grants
    • IDEA Part B state grants
    • Impact Aid
    • Title II – Supporting Effective Instruction state grants
    • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
    • Career and Technical Education state grants
  • Only two of the biggest programs are above their FY 2011 level in real, inflation-adjusted terms.
    • Federal Work Study is just 0.9% above its FY 2011 level
    • Federal TRIO program is 12% above its FY 2011 level

FY 2020 funding bills do not substantially restore purchasing power to most of the programs – Even the more generous House-passed FY 2020 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill does not bring three of the eight programs back to their 2011 levels in real terms, and the FY 2020 proposal released in the Senate puts only the Federal TRIO program above its FY 2011 level.

Child Nutrition Legislation

Senate Agriculture (AG) Committee is in the process of reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. As of now, they have yet to introduce priorities or an official release date for the bill.

Senate GOP members remain focused on the rate of improper payments to the Federal School Meals programs. The latest development from the Senate Agriculture committee leadership is set to share bipartisan bill text with full Senate Ag Committee this fall, possibly near Halloween.

On the House side, Child Nutrition Reauthorization is still in it’s infancy. However, the rate of bills concerned with addressing School Meal Debt has given us some pause, because we believe the bills apply a one size fit all approach to states, schools, and school districts that are already creating policy on the issue. As a reminder, our NREAC priorities for this year’s reauthorization include the following:

  • Return to a Five-Year Administrative Review Cycle:
  • Modify the Smart Snacks in Schools Rule:
  • Increase USDA Foods (Commodities) support for the School Breakfast Program; and
  • Oppose any effort to block grant the School Meals Programs

SNAP Rulemaking Opposed by NREAC

In other news for federal school nutrition policy, earlier this summer, USDA released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would limit states’ ability to implement Broad-based Categorical Eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – which provides eligible low-income households with an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card that can be used at authorized grocery stores. Under current law, families may become SNAP-eligible by either (1) meeting program-specific federal eligibility requirements, or (2) being deemed automatic or “categorically” eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant (TANF).

Originally, TANF was designed as a broad-purposed block grant to finance a wide range of social welfare activities, including government-subsidized employment, childcare and cash. By automatically enrolling TANF eligible households in SNAP, the Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) program enabled states to support families on the cusp of the federal poverty line through short-term financial crises by ensuring their continued access to food security. Cat El also benefited schools by making TANF students automatically eligible for free and reduced priced lunch.

The effect of this change on students and schools will be immense, as many families will no longer be eligible to receive free and reduced priced breakfast and lunch if the regulation passes. According to early estimates from Food Nutritional Service, more than 500,000 students will lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals as a result of the change.

Additionally, by limiting states’ ability to confer Categorical Eligibility to TANF families, the NPRM could hurt schools’ Title I Funding. Under the new regulation, fewer students will be eligible to receive the FRPL designation, which is one of the key metrics the U.S. Department of Education uses to allocate funding. Thus, the NPRM presents us with a double whammy scenario that will hurt the federal school meals and Title I programs.

Cat El policies have been in place for more than two decades. Although House Republicans tried to gut the program during the 2011 Reauthorization of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress has overwhelmingly rejected efforts to make Cat El more restrictive, including during its consideration of the 2005 budget reconciliation and the 2018 Farm Bill.

The ball is now in the hands of USDA to review the input gathered during the comment period this summer.  NREAC and MREA will keep you updated on USDA’s final decision and the effect on schools and school children.

Thanks to Sarah Abernathy, Deputy Executive Director, Committee for Education Funding (CEF), and Chris Rogers of NREAC for this reporting and analysis.