The House is proposing to cut funding for school safety programs, even as Congress continually increases spending on its own security. Some lawmakers and education advocates question the logic of this amid a nationwide conversation on school security, gun violence and self-harm.
The House’s draft fiscal 2019 spending bill to fund the Education and Health and Human Services departments proposes about $110 million in reductions to programs meant to improve school safety and steer behavioral health services toward students.
While there are proposed increases in a separate House spending bill for school security measures funded by the Justice Department, those would be outweighed by the other cuts. Compared to a decade ago, programs meant to foster safe school environments have dwindled dramatically. In 2007, federal funding for school safety programs exceeded $600 million. Today, it’s around $400 million, if you include a wide array of broader violent crime reduction grants for local police forces.
In comparison, spending on security services for lawmakers is going in the other direction. The Capitol Police budget would exceed $450 million in fiscal 2019 under the House’s Legislative Branch bill, compared to $393 million in fiscal 2017. The Sergeant at Arms for the House and the Senate respectively received $5 million and $7.7 million extra for fiscal 2018 explicitly for lawmakers’ security.
The House Appropriations Committee plans to mark up the broad $177.1 billion Labor-HHS-Education spending measure Tuesday, the same day a Senate appropriations subcommittee is likely to mark up its $179.3 billion version. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the subcommittee that crafts the bill, said it’s possible some funding will be restored before the markup.
“This is an area where, on a bipartisan basis, people would be happy to do more,” Cole said.
The committee usually adopts a manager’s amendment with many noncontroversial changes before its longer debate on the wide-ranging bill. Cole also noted that before the bill becomes law, it might ultimately reflect higher numbers all around since the Senate has about $2 billion more to spend on the three departments.
“I’m pretty comfortable that by the end of the process, we’ll address the Democratic concerns, but it’s certainly perfectly appropriate for them to raise it,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, many members, particularly Democrats, are likely to argue that Congress needs to do much more.
“Congress has completely failed in their responsibility to make sure that children who attend school can go to school and feel that they are safe,” said Appropriations Committee member Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass.
Changes to programs
The House’s draft spending bill to fund the Education Department would reduce to $43 million a $90 million program meant to improve the climate at schools, reduce bullying and harassment, and provide access to counseling and conflict resolution. The money can also be spent to address illegal drug use.
Under the House bill, funding for so-called safe schools national activities would be less than 10 percent of what it was in 2007, when similar Education Department programs had around $500 million to spend. That declined sharply in fiscal 2010, when about $300 million in state grants lapsed, and again in fiscal 2012, when it dropped from $191 million to $64.8 million.
Money related to school safety is being provided elsewhere, which means the overall cuts would not be as deep as the ones just in the Labor-HHS-Education bill. The House and Senate bills to fund the Justice Department would boost a program aimed at bolstering security from $75 million in fiscal 2018 to $100 million in fiscal 2019. The program, known as “STOP School Violence,” was created in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, and replaced another program created in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
The previous program, known as the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, was meant to study the root causes of school violence, and advocates and lawmakers alike saw the need to shift from a research-focused program to one that could help schools afford greater security measures, like extra officers or new surveillance systems.
Some observers note that money isn’t necessarily a panacea for schools. Jake Parker, the director of government relations for the Security Industry Association trade group, said that schools also need help to make smart investments. Along with funding, he said, schools need “additional guidance to help schools prioritize what they need so they’re not just buying the first thing that someone showed up at their door and said they should buy.”
Lawmakers and House GOP staff also point to other programs that are not explicitly for school safety, but arguably make a difference in the broader climate that can make the difference between safe places and violent ones. Programs funded by Justice represent another $138 million, some of which could get a boost next year. The House proposed a $5 million increase to a $10 million program to help train police to handle active shooter situations and a $6 million increase to a $94 million youth mentoring program. The Department of Homeland Security also says it spends some money on training related to school safety.
There are also programs at HHS, particularly at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In a graphic made to showcase school safety funding in the 2018 omnibus, lawmakers pointed to $205 million in broad mental health programs, including some for young people.
But for fiscal 2019, the House is proposing to eliminate at least $71 million of that for a program meant to help identify youth with behavioral health issues. That program has also shrunk in recent years. In 2007, a similar program devoted to youth violence prevention was funded at $93 million.
The graphic also pointed to $1.1 billion in “Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants,” also known as Title IV grants. Those are a fairly new Education Department initiative, established by the bipartisan 2015 education reauthorization law.
Title IV was only funded for the first time in fiscal 2017, at $400 million. The increase to $1.1 billion for 2018 only went into effect in late March, halfway through the fiscal year. For fiscal 2019, the House is proposing a $100 million increase, which Cole said could be used to replace the other school safety funds that could decline.
However, while the money can technically be used for some school safety activities, it can also be used for just about anything else. That means as the Education Department decides how to distribute those funds, it will be weighing the requests of schools with security needs against schools who need resources for college counseling, financial literacy, or education in science, math, music and other areas.
“This lets local people make the decision that they think is best for their kids,” Cole said.
Some education advocacy groups note that the Title IV grants evolved from many other programs that were consolidated and reduced over time. They fear that safety needs and education needs could cannibalize each other.
“The need is so great for those Title IV funds,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, director of public policy at the American School Counselor Association. “People are going to have to make tough choices.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this story.