Budget Approved by Congress Reins In Discretionary Spending on Education
By Julie A. Miller
WASHINGTON The fiscal 1992 budget signed by President Bush last week contains relatively few discretionary education dollars, the result of a Congressional effort to rein in the Administration's efforts to promote and implement its education agenda.
When Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander tells audiences around the country that education reform must be led at the local level, "it will be truer than he would have liked," one Democratic appropriations aide said.
"We really tied things down," the aide added.
The restrictions resulted from the anger of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, who argued that the Administration was shutting them out of the debate on education policy and using Education Department money to fund activities the Congress had not authorized. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)
In an interview last week, Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, whose office directs the programs containing most of the agency's discretionary funds, chided the Congress for "playing politics with education research" and for preventing her from responding quickly to developments in the field.
But she said the lawmakers' message had been received.
"I've told them [lawmakers], and the Secretary has assured them, there will be full consultation," Ms. Ravitch said.
Ms. Ravitch said the department would not work on creating national achievement tests. One of the triggers of the Congressional backlash occurred when Mr. Alexander told the Congress when he submitted his 1992 budget request that he planned just such an effort.
Instead, Ms. Ravitch said, the Administration will await the recommendations of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a panel created under an agreement between the Administration and the Congress.
The council has endorsed the concept of national standards and the creation of an assessment system, rather than a single national test. But members continue to debate whether they should recommend particular reforms or standards for the services schools deliver, and four members of the Congress who sit on the panel have balked at recommending speedy implementation of national assessments. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991 .)
"We don't intend to develop national achievement tests unless they recommend it and the Congress authorizes it," Ms. Ravitch said.
Support for Goals Panel
But the Education Department apparently intends to continue providing financial support to the National Education Goals Panel, another sore point with lawmakers, some of whom would like to replace it with a more independent body that includes educators.
The current panel, set up by the Administration and the National Governors' Association, includes only governors and Administration officials as active members.
In defending the o.E.a.@.'s support of the panel, Ms. Ravitch said the department's research branch supports the group's work only by contributing staff members and by responding to research requests, much as it would respond to a lawmaker's request.
Martin Orland, the panel's associate director, said department officials had assured panel officials that they would receive funding.
The Education Department contributed $300,000 from its "salaries and expenses" account to the panel in 1991, as well as supplying five staff members.
The Administration asked for-and was denied--$3.3 million specifically to pay the panel's expenses and another $2 million to help develop its "national report card" in 1992.
The department could tap its administrative account again. But the money in that account, which will receive a small increase in 1992, must cover all salaries, supplies, official travel, and other expenses.
Moreover, the budget encumbers the two accounts from which the department draws most of its discretionary money by specifically earmarking most of the funds for particular purposes.
And lawmakers took the unusual step of putting most of those earmarks in the spending bill itself, rather than in an accompanying report. While Education Department officials say they try to abide by "report language," they contend it is not legally binding.
The Fund for Innovation in Education, the only account that is virtually unrestricted, is to receive $24 million this year, only $3.7 million less than in fiscal 1991.
But the Congress earmarked $5.25 million for programs supporting computer-based instruction, $4.5 million for health programs, $2 million for children's-television programming, $1 million for programs related to instruction in "critical" foreign languages, and $6 million for educational-technology programs.
That leaves only $5.25 million in truly discretionary funds. Of the $27.7 million available in 1991, only $4.5 million was earmarked.
Appropriators also took steps to restrict the department's use of research funds. The research account is to receive a $6.2- million increase over last year.
But that is $3.3 million less than requested, and all but $3 million is earmarked for laboratories and centers, the Education Research Information Centers system, and field-initiated studies.
In contrast, the 1991 budget included only less specific earmarks for the laboratories and centers, and also gave the department $4.88 million in essentially discretionary funds to use for "follow up"to the "education summit" staged by President Bush with the nation's governors in 1989.
Appropriations aides said House and Senate staff members met before the Senate marked up its bill to ensure that it would contain the same research earmarks as the House bill- -making it virtually impossible to drop them as the two bills were reconciled in conference.
On the other hand, the aides noted, the strategy also prevented conferees from dipping into the research funds to come up with funds for other programs.
"We had a lot of members asking about that money ,"a Republican appropriations aide said. "I don't think Diane Ravitch realizes who her friends are."
Ms. Ravitch said that she had no firm plans for the discretionary money that is available, but that she would like to focus on educational technology and on dissemination-which encompasses promotion of the national goals and the America 2000 education strategy drafted by Mr. Alexander as well as dissemination of research findings.