Revived Education Lobby Among Hill's Best
Washington--In crisis, there is both danger and opportunity, says the Chinese proverb.
For education interests here, the sense of jeopardy engendered in the Reagan era by the Administration's aggressive moves to slash federal spending and policymaking in education has had at least one very salutary effect: It has revitalized a once-languishing coalition of lobbyists that observers now characterize as one of the most effective on Capitol Hill.
"The coalition is by far one of the more sophisticated and organized networks in the social-service arena," said a legislative aide who is involved in the Congressional budget process. "They can accomplish a great deal with 10 phone calls."
Working out of a small suite of offices on the Hill, the Committee for Education Funding's three professional staff members help coordinate the activities of 70 lobbyists and some 100 precollegiate and postsecondary education organizations, which in turn represent millions of individuals and institutions.
The lobbyists, whose organizations pay membership dues to support cef's activities, crowd into its offices on a weekly basis to confer on strategy and agree on marching orders.
Focus on Funding
One secret of the group's success is a sharp focus on funding, Washington hands say. The committee does not spend its time debating policy.
"We have to set aside individual concerns and work for the larger purpose of increased federal funding," says Edward Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.
Cef representatives are credited by those who have worked with them in past budget sessions for their knowledge about the budget process and force in communicating their position on specific funding items. This budget season will be no exception.
The President's budget would in4crease education spending by $800 million from the 1988 appropriation of $20.3 billion. The $21.2-billion request is a marked departure from the previous Administration proposal, which hovered at $14 billion.
But the $800-million increase represents only an adjustment for inflation, according to Susan Frost, cef's executive director. The committee is urging the Congress to consider an appropriation level of $22.8 billion--a $2.5 billion increase over 1988 funding.
"We want to get the numbers to match the rhetoric, " says Ms. Frost. To do that, the committee will once again call upon the government-relations personnel of its member organizations to "charge up the Hill."
The coalition first emerged in 1969 to combat another President who was inclined to cut education budgets, Richard M. Nixon.
A former Senate staff member, Charles Lee, organized the group under the name "Emergency Committee for the Full Funding of Education Programs." His group, says one cef member, had "phenomenal successes" in prodding the Congress to add nearly $8 billion to Presidential education budgets between 1969 and 1978.
During the Carter years, the word "emergency" was dropped from the committee's name as most members "grew fat and happy," in the words of one, basking in the atmosphere of a pro-education Administration.
When Mr. Lee, who had been a strong motivating force behind the group, retired in 1981, the member organizations took some time to reassess the coalition.
Although many of the lobbyists worked informally together, it was not until 1983 that the group formally reconstituted itself and hired Ms. Frost to fill Mr. Lee's shoes. The name was changed to the Committee for Education Funding.
"The Reagan years have unified the coalition," says Andrea Bolling, lobbyist for the American Associ8ation of Community and Junior Colleges and current president of c.e.f. "We are stronger than ever."
"When the agenda of the Administration is dissolving or severely reducing the federal role in education," concurs Ms. Frost, "it forces unity."
Strength Through Unity
Unity equals strength, say Congressional staff members who work on budget-related committees. And strength is what c.e.f. is known for on Capitol Hill.
"They have really become knowledgeable about the process and the intricacies and the inside decisions," says John F. Jennings, majority counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee.
"Most groups just look at the outcomes and don't understand the process," he says.
In fact, suggests another staff member, the coalition is becoming so educated on the intricacies that its representatives sometimes can be "too aggressive" in making their needs known.
Maintaining that kind of educated and unified network takes a concerted effort, points out Mr. Jennings, particularly when conflicting interests of the many groups within the coalition have to be reconciled.
"If there is a problem with even one of our associations and it is raised in the weekly meeting, then it will stop us in our tracks until we figure out an accommodation," says Ms. Frost.
Unanimous consent must be reached, she adds, before a position is formally adopted by the coalition.
What usually makes forging a consensus possible, she notes, is that the groups realize that if the Administration is successful in slicing funds from higher-education programs one year, they are more likely to be successful in cutting funds from elementary and secondary programs the next year.
After the weekly cef session, each lobbyist will take agreed-upon positions to an assigned group of lawmakers and, equally important, to his or her organization's membership.
The individual associations organize field campaigns in which educators from across the country contact their Congressional delegates and urge support for c.e.f. positions.
'Have To Hear From Us'
"The members of Congress have to hear from their constituents or our efforts are in vain," says Ms. Frost, who left a job as legislative assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to direct the education coalition.
C.e.f. also publishes a newsletter and an annual book analyzing the proposed budget, and operates a 24-hour telephone hotline with the latest information on budget hearings and deadlines.
Ms. Frost credits a bipartisan Congress that "recognizes the need for a federal role in education" for victories in raising funding levels in the fiscal 1988 budget. It is the hope of the committee that the Congressional support will bring victory again, she says.
The budget process is expected to move faster this year, with strong guidelines already established by the budget agreement and with lawmakers wanting additional time away from Washington to campaign for elections.
C.e.f. will focus its efforts on the appropriations committees, which have the task of allotting funds to individual programs under the budget guidelines.
"We will have to convince the Congress to question the credibility of the budget request, which comes nowhere near to catching up to the needs," says Mr. Kealy. "We will have to break the election-year psychology of keeping things static."