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Vocational-Ed. Budget Cut Said Likely in Fiscal 1987

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Washington--The Reagan Administration is preparing a fiscal 1987 budget that would substantially reduce vocational-education spending but generally freeze other school-aid programs, according to senior Education Department officials.

Making reductions in a handful of programs rather than across the board would enable Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to avoid politically and educationally unpalatable cuts, officials said.

"He wants to make substantial cuts in two or three places to hold steady in others," said a senior official.

Department aides, in recent interviews, outlined the rationale behind the spending blueprint for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 1986, but were unwilling to disclose the amount of their budget and funding levels for specific programs.

Of the spending reductions likely to be included in the 1987 budget proposal--which will be sent to Capitol Hill next month--the vocational-education program would be the one new account targeted for a cut.

The Administration is also expected to again propose cuts in impact-aid and higher-education programs and the elimination of some smaller programs it unsuccessfully sought to kill last year.

The department will probably4seek to maintain spending for three of Mr. Bennett's top priorities: Chapter 1 compensatory-education aid, which the Secretary has proposed converting to vouchers; the bilingual-education program, which he has said would not be cut; and research activities, which Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, has said are underfunded. The research budget may in fact be increased, a department source said.

It is also considered unlikely that Chapter 2 block grants and handicapped-education funding will be reduced significantly.

Deficit-Reduction Measure

Lawmakers have rejected Administration-proposed reductions in education spending since cutting it sharply in 1981. But this year they may have little choice but to enact new reductions, in light of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction measure. Even deeper cuts will be necessary in later years to achieve the legislation's aims.

The new law, which Mr. Bennett has strongly supported, requires the elimination of the federal deficit by 1991, mandating a $144-billion ceiling on the fiscal 1987 deficit. The deficit is estimated now at about $200 billion.

If the Congress and the President cannot agree on a budget that meets the deficit goal, then spending for programs--including education, but excluding more than half the federal budget, such as Social Security and eight antipoverty programs--will be cut uniformly to hit the target.

The required reduction in domestic programs during the current fiscal year is estimated at about 4 percent.

First Draft of Budget

It was unclear last week how much of the Education Department's budget will have to be cut from the department's initial fiscal 1987 proposal in order to help meet the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit ceiling.

The first draft of the education budget for fiscal 1987 was within a $16.6-billion ceiling set by the Office of Management and Budget, a department official said, adding that the department was one of the few Cabinet agencies that met their targets.

The department's current budget, which President Reagan signed into law last month, totals nearly $18.5- billion, about $3 billion above what Mr. Reagan had proposed.

Even before the Congress passed the deficit-reduction law --the constitutionality of which is being challenged in federal court here--the omb director, James C. Miller 3rd, said he would prepare a budget below the $144-billion deficit ceiling. The suit challenging the law, brought by a group of lawmakers, contends that the measure unconstitutionally shifts power to spend money from the legislative branch to the executive branch.

And in a brief seeking to dismiss the legislators' suit on technical grounds, the Justice Department asserted that the law's main budget-reduction mechanism unconstitutionally infringes on Presidential prerogatives.

Although President Reagan endorsed the legislation, several Cabinet members objected to its potentially adverse effect on their departments. But in a Dec. 12 Cabinet meeting, during which the President heard some of their complaints, Mr. Bennett spoke in favor of the law, according to an Administration official.

"You're only asking us to do our jobs," Mr. Bennett reportedly told the President. The Secretary is said to have added that Gramm-Rudman-Hollings "is history. We ought not walk out of here with long faces.''

Old Proposals Revisited

A reduction in vocational-education spending, along with the resubmission of cuts proposed last year, may be all that is needed for the department to stay within a lower budget ceiling.

The planned reduction could be in the budget for either the vocational-education account or the $101-million adult-education program--which underwrites such projects as worker retraining--or both. Department aides would not say how the cuts would be distributed between these two accounts.

The fiscal 1986 vocational-education budget is about $846 million. The Congress rewrote the vocational-education law in 1984 and increased its funding in fiscal 1985 by $100 million, from $739 million to $839 million.

John K. Wu, assistant secretary-designate for vocational and adult education, said last week that he had "not heard one way or the other" from the Secretary about details of the 1987 vocational-education budget.

In its fiscal 1986 budget submission last February, the Administration proposed to eliminate the $130- million in impact-aid "B" payments--which go to school districts where parents live or work on federal installations--and to cut more than $2 billion from higher-education programs.

While new higher-education policy proposals will most likely differ from last year's, similarly deep savings will probably be sought.

Some other proposed 1986 cuts that could again be sought include the elimination of the $30-million immigrant-education program and the $75-million magnet-schools assistance effort.

Details will not be known until the Administration submits the entire federal budget to the Congress--which can then accept, reject, or modify it.

As of last week at least, Mr. Bennett and his aides were refraining from leaking specifics on the budget to the press corps here, a popular activity at this time of year.

Juvenile-Justice Freeze

In one of its first specific responses to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the Administration has acted to withhold the Justice Department's juvenile-justice funding, pending a request that the Congress eliminate the program.

The funding, which the Administration sought to kill last year, underwrites projects that promote President Reagan's school-discipline initiative, announced two years ago as a key education emphasis.

Among the grant recipients whose money is being withheld is the National School Safety Center, an information clearinghouse on school discipline affiliated with Pepperdine University in California.

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