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Senate Gives Nod to More E.D. Funds

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WASHINGTON--Education lobbyists were claiming a hard-won victory last week as the Senate approved a fiscal 1988 budget plan that contains a $1.7-billion increase for federal education programs.

The education figure was the product of a last-minute agreement between Senators Lawton Chiles, the Florida Democrat who serves as chairman of the Budget Committee, and Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina.

The proposed education budget came as part of a package of changes agreed to by Mr. Chiles to placate both conservative and liberal members of his party. The package provides more money for defense while raising $18 billion in new revenue.

According to Mr. Hollings, the agreement also provides enough money so that all education programs could at least keep pace with inflation. Healthy increases above that level are slated for the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program and for Pell Grants, among other programs.

Mr. Chiles had initially offered a budget plan that contained about $800 million in new school spending, a figure that education lobbyists considered inadequate.

Mr. Hollings's larger education-spending proposal, which garnered considerable bipartisan support, was contained in an overall budget package for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. The Senate approved the plan on a 57-to-42 vote.

"We are delighted that the [budget] resolution now has what we consider an adequate funding level,'' said Susan Frost, executive director of the Coalition for Education Funding. "We believe that this clearly makes education a federal budget priority.''

Under the Senate plan, the Education Department would receive nearly $7 billion more than the Reagan Administration requested, and $1.4 billion more than this year's appropriation.

Because of lower interest rates, the amount of money required to maintain the department's existing services has dropped, leaving an additional $300 million available for new spending.

The budget plan must still go to a conference panel to resolve differences between it and a spending plan adopted by the House last month.

Highlights of the Senate budget include:
Chapter 1. The plan would raise funding by $700 million over last year's level. The increase would allow the program to serve an additional 700,000 students, but still far fewer than the 4.8 million who are eligible.
Special education. The federal share of the average cost of educating a handicapped child would rise from 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Senator Hollings. Higher funding for the department's one-year-old early-intervention program would extend services to about 27,000 handicapped infants, he said.
Dropouts. A total of $50 million would be set aside for a new dropout-prevention program. Before the money could be spent, however, the Congress would have to agree to authorize such an effort.
Student financial aid. An $800-million increase would allow the department to raise the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income students, and restore eligibility to about 400,000 students whose families have incomes between $22,000 and $25,000 a year.

The plan also includes an additional $228 million for the college work-study program and for supplemental grants. The Administration had proposed eliminating both of these programs.
TRIO. The budget provides an additional $34 million for the TRIO program, which assists minority and disadvantaged college students from families that have never had access to higher education. The increase would pay for 170 new projects.

Quick Praise

Democratic Senators--joined by some Republican members--were quick to praise the budget's education provisions.

Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, called the plan "absolutely essential,'' while Senator C. John Stennis of Mississippi, a conservative Democrat with a record of supporting higher defense spending, said he would be willing to consider cuts in the Pentagon budget in order to expand education programs.

"Our military might is of little benefit if we allow our nation to weaken internally by neglecting the educational needs of our people,'' he said.

Republican opponents of the budget argued, however, that there was no guarantee that the plan's generous increases for education would actually end up benefiting the nation's schools. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which actually allocate the dollars, can liberally interpret the budget resolution's overall priorities, Republicans noted.

Last year, for example, a $1.9-billion increase earmarked for education by the budget resolution was actually spent on health programs, according to Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget panel.

"Anybody who votes for this budget thinking there is a new literacy program on the horizon, and we are funding it, doesn't understand budgeting,'' he said.

Debt Showdown

Meanwhile, the Congress is drawing close to another budgetary confrontation that observers say could wreak havoc with all federal programs, including education.

This week, the House and Senate come up against a May 15 deadline for raising the existing limit on the federal debt, which is now close to the $2.3-trillion ceiling. Unless the limit is raised, the Treasury will be unable to borrow the money needed to sustain current federal spending, and many government offices will be forced to shut down.

In 1985, the Congress postponed raising the debt limit for several months while debate raged over the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, which had been put forward as an amendment to the debt legislation.

That time, the Treasury was able to continue meeting federal obligations through a variety of stop-gap measures, including an unauthorized raid on securities held by the Social Security trust fund.

This year, however, the situation is even more perilous, observers warn. While the 1985 debt ceiling remained frozen until the Congress acted, this year the limit will automatically fall to $2.1 trillion unless the new, higher provision is approved.

In a recent letter to Congressional leaders, two top Reagan Administration officials--Howard Baker, the White House chief of staff, and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker 3rd--warned that failure to raise the limit would cause administrative chaos and could even force the government to suspend temporarily interest payments on its outstanding notes.

The two officials reportedly have said the Treasury will only have enough cash on hand to last until the end of the month.

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