Lobbyists See Minuses for Education in Clinton Budget Plan
WASHINGTON--The Clinton Administration's budget strategy has negative implications for education programs and devotes too much money to an unproven reform initiative, many lobbyists and other observers on Capitol Hill and in the education community said last week.
While acknowledging that the deficit is likely to preclude substantial increases in the Clinton budget, observers also predict that Congress will make significant changes in the way education funds are allocated.
The education community's initial reaction to the Clinton budget last month was largely positive, focusing on significant increases proposed for Head Start and child-health and -nutrition programs. (See Education Week, Feb. 24, 1993.)
But, compared with such programs in the Health and Human Services and Agriculture departments, the budget is less generous with the Education Department.
"The numbers for elementary and secondary education are deplorable,'' said Arnold Fege, the director of federal relations for the National PTA. "I'm trying to decide if they're better than the Bush numbers.''
Much as President Bush did, President Clinton is apparently proposing a budget that increases education spending, but almost entirely for new Administration programs.
At a briefing for reporters, Education Department officials said the agency's programs would receive a net increase of about $400 million above the amount needed to keep pace with inflation in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. The department's budget for the current fiscal year is about $28.3 billion.
But they also said Mr. Clinton would ask Congress to appropriate $870 million for the new education-reform program, as well as unspecified amounts to start up a youth-apprenticeship initiative and a program that would allow some students to work in community-service jobs in exchange for college tuition.
Unlike recent Republican budgets, which reckoned cuts and increases based on the actual amount programs received in the starting year, the Clinton budget begins with the current-services "baseline,'' which includes an inflation increase and is, therefore, more generous.
Nonetheless, observers agree that the arithmetic of the Administration's proposal would require a freeze on most existing education programs, deep cuts in others, and only small increases in the most fortunate ones.
In an interview, Marshall S. Smith, a consultant to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, acknowledged that such a scenario would be likely. He said the Administration did not want to propose big increases in existing programs with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act pending.
"We didn't want to use up our capital until it was time to suggest some program changes,'' Mr. Smith said.
But the numbers do not add up much differently for later years. At the briefing, Mr. Smith said the Education Department would, under the Clinton plan, receive a net increase of about $4.5 billion between the current fiscal year and fiscal 1997.
The plan also calls for spending $3 billion that year on the new reform program, which would provide grants to states and districts to develop and implement reform plans; $3 billion for the service program; and $500 million for the apprenticeship program, which is to be split between the Education and Labor departments.
"If a Republican proposed this, the education groups and the Democrats would be screaming,'' a Republican appropriations aide said.
Capitol Hill critics have instead complained that the plan includes too many taxes and too few spending cuts, while education groups praised Mr. Clinton for his overall investment in children's programs.
A news release from the Committee for Education Funding, for example, devoted most of its length to praising Mr. Clinton's short-term spending package, which would fund summer Head Start and Chapter 1 programs and cover $2 billion in Pell Grant shortfalls. (See story, page 27.)
"We are in strong agreement with President Clinton's overall priorities for the future,'' Richard A. Kruse, the current C.E.F. president, said in the statement.
Mr. Kruse, who is the director of governmental relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, noted that Mr. Clinton's Feb. 17 address to Congress had called on the American people "to engage in a dialogue with him on national priorities.''
The education community "looks forward to being full participants in that dialogue,'' Mr. Kruse said.
Another lobbyist agreed: "We have hopes for this Administration. We don't want to come out bashing them immediately.''
But other lobbyists criticized the Clinton budget forthrightly.
Mr. Fege, for example, said the PTA is not opposed to the grant program, "but if they're going to take $700 million from Chapter 1 or special education and put it into this, we're going to have a problem.''
Lobbyists note that the reform program is based on a largely unpopular bill that was originally conceived as a Democratic alternative to President Bush's America 2000 strategy. (See related story, page 25.) Last year's alternative bill died at the end of the 102nd Congress.
"That proposal had no support in the school community, except for the state superintendents,'' Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said, adding that most education groups gave nominal support to the bill to back the Democrats in fighting the Bush Administration's proposals.
"At least it isn't harmful, like private school vouchers,'' he said.
Critics say that it is really a block grant that would give state officials too much control over local initiatives.
But most observers think the grant program will be enacted.
"The mood here is, 'Pass what Clinton wants,' '' said John F. Jennings, the education counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee.
But observers agreed that Congress is unlikely to appropriate as much as the Administration wants, especially at the expense of other education programs.
"There seems to be a mood to take Clinton's budget as a starting point for cutbacks, not to take the budget and increase it,'' Mr. Jennings said.
However, aides also noted that lawmakers could shift priorities without raising total spending.
"There will be a real inclination among Democrats to help them along with their school-reform initiative, but they also have their own favorite programs to protect,'' a Democratic appropriations aide said. "I don't think they'll get as much as they want. That program just can't compete with Chapter 1.''
Observers predict that the battle will continue to be a quiet one, with education groups lobbying the Administration and Congress privately.
"We won't oppose funding for the program,'' Mr. Hunter said. "We'll just fight harder for other things.''