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Clinton Proposals Putting Lobbyists In Tough Position

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WASHINGTON--As Clinton Administration officials prepare their fiscal 1994 budget for its scheduled release this week, the education lobby finds itself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The problem, they say, is that the budget is virtually certain to be less generous than they would like, but they want to support a President they view as an ally.

"My feeling is they're torn over this,'' said Arnold Fege, the director of governmental relations for the National PTA. "They're unhappy, but don't want to say anything.''

While the teachers' unions are the only education groups that openly support candidates, the education community as a whole had hoped that a Democratic Administration--particularly one led by a politician known nationally for his work in school reform--would reshuffle budgetary priorities to the benefit of federal education programs.

But when Administration officials first outlined their budget strategy in February, they proposed that the Education Department receive $400 million above the amount needed to keep pace with inflation in fiscal 1994. Since they also proposed that more than $1 billion be spent on the Administration's new initiatives, lobbyists quickly realized the potential negative consequences for existing programs.

The first Clinton budget may prove to be less generous to the agency's programs than President Bush's last budget, which proposed a record $1.6 billion spending hike, $767 million of it for his own initiatives. The Committee for Education Funding--which asked for an $8 billion increase for fiscal 1993--termed the proposal "disappointing.''

The education community's negative reaction last year could be partly traced to the antipathy it felt toward Mr. Bush's programs, particularly his private school voucher plan. But many lobbyists are also less than enthusiastic about the Clinton initiatives, including a grant program to support state and local reforms and a federal role in developing a national system of standards and assessments. (See Education Week, March 3, 1993.)

'Walking on Eggs'

The lobbyists face a dilemma. They can lambaste the Administration, as they have its Republican predecessors, and run the risk of alienating potential allies without gaining much. Or they can hold their fire, a choice that could make it hard to sing a different tune on Capitol Hill--and open them to charges of partisanship and hypocrisy.

"We're walking on eggs,'' said Richard A. Kruse, the director of governmental relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the president of the Committee for Education Funding. "In the long run, we think there's going to be a successful hatching, and we don't want to stomp on the eggs to see how thick the shells are.''

Some observers--noting that the teachers' unions poured money and manpower into Mr. Clinton's campaign--view the reluctance to criticize the President and his proposals as partisan support for a political party that is sympathetic toward the education establishment.

"If a Republican proposed this, the education groups and the Democrats would be screaming,'' a Republican appropriations aide said.

But the lobbyists say their motives are more complex. While they do not like what they have heard so far about the budget for the year that begins on Oct. 1, they said, they still believe Mr. Clinton views education as a high priority.

"We know the President is very much a friend of children and education, and we are thinking about the long term,'' Mr. Kruse said.

Terry Peterson, an adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said he hopes the education groups will "look at the bigger picture.''

"If we don't bring the deficit down and it hurts the economy, that hurts public schools most of all,'' he added, "since the big money in education is at the state and local levels.''

Indeed, some lobbyists said they believe the Clinton budget is a sincere attempt to shift some priorities while also dealing with a deficit that has curtailed all federal spending.

"We have a real attempt to refocus national priorities,'' said Dena G. Stoner, the executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research. "Defense is being cut, the deficit is being taken seriously. We all know the deficit is eating into our seed corn.''

Had Republican Presidents made "a real effort at the big picture,'' she said, education groups would have responded sympathetically.

A Question of Strategy

Lobbyists also note that opposing the budget might not be very fruitful, given the fact that there is a limited amount of money available, and Congressional Democrats are generally eager to support the President.

"There is the thought that it is stupid to posture when the Democrats are going to buy this,'' said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

Agreed Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, "It can make you feel better to be a warrior and beat on your shield, but it might not be the best strategy.''

When the leadership of the C.E.F.--an umbrella organization that represents most public-school and higher-education groups on budget issues--met in late February, it decided to avoid criticizing the budget and instead to complain privately to Administration officials.

They hoped the preliminary figures might change, and feared jeopardizing education spending in the President's economic-stimulus package by criticizing other elements of his economic program. The "stimulus,'' a supplemental appropriations bill that may be approved by Congress this week, includes funds for summer-education and -jobs programs. (See story, page 27.)

Most important, in the lobbyists' view, the proposal included $2 billion--since scaled back to $1.86 billion--to cover shortfalls in the Pell Grant program built up over previous years. The need to fill those holes has curtailed other spending.

"If you look at where the priority is this minute, getting the Pell shortfall off the books is probably the most critical thing,'' said Carnie Hayes, the director of federal-state relations at the Council of Chief State School Officers. "If they didn't do it, it would be eating us away for the next four or five years.''

A Grim Analysis

But the debate within the education community had just begun.

Susan Frost, the C.E.F. executive director, warned in a Feb. 22 memorandum that, in addition to the Administration's reform initiatives, "most of the education investment'' in the 1994 Clinton budget is slated for early-childhood programs--primarily Head Start--and job-training programs. Meanwhile, she wrote, "It appears that every existing education program for students age 6 through college graduation will be held at baseline, frozen, or cut.''

The budget "fails to make a real investment in the federal education programs serving our school-age and college-bound youth,'' Ms. Frost concluded. "New initiatives, reform, and creative and more efficient delivery of services are all important, but these efforts cannot replace the services our poorest children need to succeed.''

Lobbyists met several times with Administration officials, who they said were surprised at their analysis. Some lobbyists said officials had even called them to ask if they would talk to reporters about the budget, only to be told that such commentary might not be entirely positive.

Lobbyists said the officials were surprised that the education advocates were making a distinction between funding for new programs and existing ones, and that they viewed the job-training and early-childhood programs as competing with K-12 programs. One lobbyist said bluntly that Mr. Riley had suffered "a major, major loss'' to the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

"We don't see those investments as competition, but complementary,'' Mr. Peterson responded last week.

As for some lobbyists' lack of enthusiasm for the education-reform bill, Mr. Peterson noted that they "did not see the inner workings.''

"In our discussions with [the Office of Management and Budget],'' he said, "we might not have received some of the money we did if we hadn't proposed substantial reforms.''

Waiting and Hoping

Lobbyists said they plan to hold off further decisions on strategy until after the budget is released. Not only do they hope that some of the numbers will have changed, but they are also watching ongoing negotiations over the reform bill to gauge its likely shape and the Administration's willingness to compromise. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

Indeed, some lobbyists noted that a March 18 draft of the bill calls for $422 million for reform grants and $23 million for standards and assessment initiatives. In February briefings, Administration officials said they would request $870 million in fiscal 1994 for their "reform'' package, which is also to include a $100 million "safe schools'' program.

Some lobbyists speculated that the Administration may have reduced the proposal in order to put more money into existing programs.

Mr. Peterson said the $870 million figure was meant to include "new investment'' in some existing programs, such as Even Start and the program for disabled preschoolers.

Some lobbyists said their individual groups will not slam the budget directly, but will ask Congress to provide more than it requests for many programs. Others said they may take a more aggressive stance.

There are also more specific differences. The C.C.S.S.O. supports the "reform'' programs other groups are leery of, and the community in general is divided over the testing initiatives. Higher-education groups are concerned about the Administration's proposals to cut some student aid and radically change federal loan programs. NAFIS is dismayed at Mr. Clinton's call for cuts in impact aid.

Such disagreements could make it difficult for the C.E.F. to maintain its customary united front. Lobbyists said teachers' union representatives, in particular, argued adamantly against criticizing the President they had worked so hard to help elect.

"They've been united for 12 years against Republican budget cuts and voucher plans,'' a Democratic appropriations aide said. "Now, they have to adapt to a new environment.''

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