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Reagan's 1984 Budget Gets Mixed Reviews

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Washington--The Reagan Administration's education proposals for the fiscal year 1984, including an overall budget reduction of 12 percent and changes in numerous programs, were greeted with mixed reactions on Capitol Hill and in the education community here last week.

Although lobbyists and Congressional supporters of education said they were generally pleased that the recommended budget cuts were considerably smaller than those the President proposed last year, they said they were skeptical about certain of the Administration's initiatives--including a plan for education "vouchers" for disadvantaged children and a "self-help" proposal for college-student assistance. (See accompanying story on this page.)

"I was pleased to see that the President realizes our needs in math and science," said Rayma C. Page, president of the National School Boards Association, referring to the Administration's $70-million program to increase the supply of mathematics and science teachers.

"But I disagree with the voucher proposal," she said. "I think it will lead us back into segregating our society, not just by color, but by class."

Public-education advocates said they were especially displeased with the President's reiteration of support for tuition tax credits and school prayer, which he proposed to the Congress last year.

Proposals 'Unfortunate'

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that although the budget-reduction proposals were "unfortunate," the "icing on the cake is Reagan's renewed pledge to provide tuition tax credits to private-school parents who already can afford to send their children to nonpublic schools."

Mr. Reagan, in the budget for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, sought to reduce the Education Department's budget from the current $15 billion to $13.1 billion. The recommended budget reductions were distributed unevenly; although funding for the Chapter 1 program would decrease by only percent and the special-education program would receive no budget cut, vocational- and adult-education programs were slated for a 40-percent cut.

The proposal contrasts sharply with the Administration's last budget plan, in which the President sought to slash the education budget by one-third, to eliminate the Cabinet-level department, and to create two new block-grant packages.

Most of those proposals were rejected outright by the Congress, however, and the department's fiscal 1983 budget grew by 2 percent over the previous year's.

In spite of the cuts contained in the latest proposal, the Administration's budget documents characterized this year's requests as a "freeze" in spending levels for education.

"We have attempted to put together a budget that not only will be responsive ... but that also reflects the current state of the nation's economic situation," said Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell last week. He said the recommended cuts were smaller than last year's because the Administration sought to ease "the pressures on state and local budgets."

Education lobbyists pointed out, however, that the nation's 5-percent inflation rate would mean that the department's budget would actually decline by 17 percent next year if the Congress accepts the budget-reduction proposals.

Congressional Leaders Divided

Congressional leaders were divided over whether to accept the President's call for a "freeze" on domestic spending in view of his request for a $280.5-billion defense budget--up 14 percent from last year.

"There will be a hell of a shift from defense to social programs, no doubt about it," said Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the education budget.

"This is the same stay-the-course budget we have seen for the past two years," said Representative James R. Jones, the Oklahoma Democrat who chairs the House Budget Com-mittee. But Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, countered that "for those who think [the budget is] unfair, I think the test is what kind of budget they will produce."

The two budget committees are responsible for setting overall spending targets for federal programs.

The President's budget message to the Congress, delivered last Monday, said that "one of the highest priorities I have set for my Administration is the return to a more appropriate role for the federal government in the nation's education systems and policies."

The message characterized the President's posture as continuing the ''commitment to avoid[ing] improper federal involvement in state, local, and family decisions, while preserving proper federal support for key national policy goals such as supporting compensatory and handicapped education, facilitating access to higher education, and helping states improve science and mathematics education."

By far the most controversial of the President's proposals was the plan to restructure the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program to permit states or school districts the option of giving parents a federal ''voucher"--of approximately $450--to be spent at public or private schools.

'Broaden Family Choice'

The program's stated goal is to "broaden family choice" by permitting poor parents to purchase private schooling with federal funds, if they so choose.

But lobbyists contended last week that public schools and state education agencies were unlikely to participate voluntarily in the program, making it "unworkable."

"I would prefer just making the voucher plan mandatory," said Lawrence A. Uzzell, president of Learn Inc., a private organization that has promoted education vouchers. "We don't allow states to make the decision about whether college aid should go to the students in private colleges. We just do it," Mr. Uzzell said.

Other lobbyists said the plan was likely to result in a First Amendment lawsuit, similar to that pending in the U.S. Supreme Court over a tuition tax-deduction law in Minnesota.

"We're very supportive of Chapter 1 and think it's working very well for the students involved in both the public and private schools," said Robert L. Smith, executive director of the Council for American Private Education.

"We're not against discussing possible changes in Chapter 1, if those changes won't weaken it," he said. He added that the voucher plan has not been widely implemented before, and he cautioned that the Administration should not "try out engineering [a new program] on those who are at the bottom of the ladder economically and socially."

Because the voucher idea is "still being studied" by Administration officials, according to Secretary Bell, education lobbyists speculated as to why the Administration chose to announce the plan before its proposal was complete.

"The Administration is active in trying to mollify the 'Far Right,"' claimed one lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. "I don't think Congress is going to go one inch with that idea, because it's a lot of baloney," the lobbyist added.

The vocational-education budget proposal also drew fire last week.

As proposed by the Administration, the $728-million vocational-education program and the $95-million adult-education program would be combined into a $500-million block grant to the states. If the Congress were to accept the President's latest New Federalism proposal, responsibility for those programs--along with the Chapter 2 block grant and the rehabilitation-services program--would eventually be turned over completely to the states.

Anita Epstein, a lobbyist for the National Association of State Boards of Education, said state-board members would "appreciate some flexibility, but we don't want a reduction of funds."

"We think there is a very definite federal role in preparing our youth for jobs," she added.

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