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Lawmakers Question Budget Request for America 2000

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WASHINGTON -- As hearings opened last week on the fiscal 1993 education budget, lawmakers praised Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander for the $1.6-billion increase in discretionary education spending proposed by the Bush Administration.

But the appropriators also told Mr. Alexander that they were unlikely to agree with the Administration's plan to pump most of those funds into the President's America 2000 education strategy while giving most existing programs only modest increases. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

"You are to be congratulated for convincing the President and the Office of Management and Budget to make this proposal," said Representative William H. Natcher, the Kentucky Democrat who is chairman of the appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "You're on the right road here."

However, Mr. Natcher then asked Mr. Alexander what inflation rate the Administration is using to calculate the amounts needed to continue existing service levels. The chairman pointed out that the major precollegiate-education programs would not receive enough under the Bush budget to meet that "baseline" level.

"Anything over zero is high in this budget," which contains an overall freeze on domestic spending, Mr. Alexander replied. "We made a conscious decision to recommend to Congress that it invest in radical change."

No Sale

Democratic panelists were unswayed, and Republicans made little effort to defend the President's plan.

"This committee has been very cooperative in setting aside money for new things, but we also support existing programs," Mr. Natcher said.

The lawmakers declined to debate the merits of America 2000, although Mr. Alexander made several attempts to discuss the President's proposals for a national assessment system, "break the mold" schools, and particularly school choice.

The Administration has proposed spending $500 million on a voucher program that would give low- and middle-income parents as much as $1,000 in state and federal funds to spend at a public or private school.

Mr. Alexander noted several times how much of that money might go to schools in a particular member's district. For example, he told Representative Louis Stokes, Democrat of Ohio, that Cleveland area schools could stand to receive $30 million in new federal and state aid.

'"We are willing to substantially increase spending on low- and middle income students as long as you are willing to let them choose the schools they want," Mr. Alexander said.

While they did not debate the merits of the Administration's proposals, the panelists indicated that they would not fund them if they were not authorized by the Congress.

Promotional Efforts Questioned

Mr. Natcher asked the Secretary how he would use almost $100 million set aside in the current year if new programs are not enacted by April 1, as required. The chairman stressed that those funds can only be used in existing formula-grant programs, and that another use would require approval. Mr. Alexander declined to say what he would propose.

Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, contended in typically blunt fashion that the Administration in its promotion of America 2000 is spending federal funds for a purpose the Congress has not authorized.

That perception led lawmakers to restrict use of the discretionary funds available to the Education Department in the current year, particularly those in the research budget. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991.)

Mr. Obey said approval of the department's request for a 64 percent increase in its research budget would be a "backdoor authorization," allowing the Administration to promote unapproved initiatives, particularly those related to testing.

Brandishing a fistful of America 2000 literature, Mr. Obey also asked the Secretary to inform the subcommittee exactly how much had been spent on publications, travel, and other promotional activities.

Mr. Alexander said that "moving the nation toward the national education goals" is his department's appropriate mission, and he cited broad language in the law that created the agency as authorization.

"What else should we be doing besides helping our students meet world-class standards?" Mr. Alexander asked.

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