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Spending Ideas Bump Into 'Wall' of Fiscal Reality

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Washington

Clinton Administration officials came to Washington with ideas for several new education programs. But they quickly learned that new spending is difficult to propose in a tough fiscal environment where increases must be balanced by sacrifices.

"That's the wall we keep bumping up against,'' Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley remarked early in his tenure.

The restrictions have also prompted the education community to re-examine its assumptions, its methods, and its message.

"We're going to have to be better at advocating for education, using more grassroots lobbying, no question,'' said Susan Frost, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group comprising more than 100 education organizations.

The federal budget process has been subject for years to a variety of schemes to rein in spending. Most recently, in August, President Clinton signed a $496 billion deficit-reduction package that essentially freezes domestic discretionary spending over the next five years. That means increases must be offset by cuts.

"These caps are with us for the long haul,'' said Richard A. Kruse, the director of government relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

That realization tempered reaction to President Clinton's proposed budget for fiscal 1995, which education groups generally praised as evidence of education's high priority in the White House. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994, and table, pages 20-21.)

The plan would give $31.7 billion to Education Department programs, including a 7 percent, or $1.7 billion, increase in discretionary funds for the agency, one of only a few to be treated so generously.

But the education community noted that the lion's share of the increased funding would go to the Administration's new initiatives, and the lobbyists were not pleased with a list of 33 programs slated for elimination--the price of increased funding in other areas of the department's budget.

Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said that as agencies, and constituencies for individual programs within agencies, compete for a piece of a shrinking funding pie, setting priorities becomes vital.

"We're coming to an understanding that we have a need to set priorities and their importance in moving the whole budget forward,'' he said.

Maintaining programs that the Administration believes have outlived their usefulness or that are administratively burdensome is "costly in terms of money spent and costly in terms of opportunity lost,'' Mr. Smith said.

Previous administrations have tried to eliminate some of the same programs, with Congress refusing to go along. But that may not be the case this year, said an aide to Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I don't think this will be a business-as-usual year where Congress turns these cuts down,'' the aide said. "We have a committee with members who want to help this President.''

Defending the 'Meat'

And a more competitive climate gives the education community a powerful incentive to support the President and his education-reform measures--such as Goals 2000 and the school-to-work initiative--even though appropriators may be forced to choose between those measures and established programs.

"When the losers in this budget look for money, they're going to be coveting our $1.7 billion increase, and it's going to be up to organizations like ours to clearly demonstrate to lawmakers what the meat is and how important this investment is,'' Mr. Kruse said.

The education lobby is also reluctant to attack a relatively friendly Administration, in which the President and the Secretary of Education are both former Democratic Governors who built reputations as education advocates.

Indeed, when Mr. Clinton proposed a less generous education increase for fiscal 1994, he was largely spared the harsh criticism that previous, Republican, administrations received. (See Education Week, April 7, 1993.)

Mr. Smith attributed this to "mutual respect'' between education groups and the Administration.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said it could be attributed "partially to a honeymoon, but also partly a recollection of history.''

He said education groups felt partially responsible for President Carter losing his re-election bid after "constant sniping'' about the budget and other issues.

"This situation [with Mr. Clinton] looked real familiar. Behind the scenes, people were more than disappointed, but there was a sense that we could do more long- and short-term harm'' by criticizing him, Mr. Casserly said.

A Shift in Strategy?

The Committee for Education Funding, as an umbrella group, has traditionally advocated increasing federal funding for the entire spectrum of education programs, staying clear of picking and choosing among them.

Mr. Smith said he realizes that the idea of balancing increases in priority programs with cuts in others "is hard for the education community to get behind.''

But Ms. Frost said the C.E.F. is willing to talk about education cuts, so long as they are treated individually.

"We won't be the dinosaurs who say every line shouldn't be cut,'' she said. "Programs shouldn't be kept or eliminated en bloc, they should be evaluated on their merits, and we'll work with Congress to do that.''

While Ms. Frost said that does not amount to a new strategy, some observers hear a new message.

"It used to be: 'If you cut one education program to fund another you're our enemy,''' Mr. Natcher's aide said. "Though they wouldn't say publicly that they're changing their strategy, it is not their line anymore.''

Mr. Casserly said tighter spending caps make it "harder to argue for the status quo.''

"It's made the education community think about its priorities, too, and if things have to go, just where it can give,'' he said. "But this is not a happy situation for any of us.''

"When the Administration came out with the cuts,'' he said, "the question was at least asked: 'Can we give any of this up in lieu of those other increases?'''

New Alliances

Many education representatives said their groups will boost their efforts to form alliances with organizations in such fields as job training and health care.

The same appropriations subcommittees oversee the Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor departments, and many programs serving children and youths in all three agencies surfaced as winners in the proposed budget for the year that starts Oct. 1.

"Things could become divisive [between groups], but we hope it won't,'' Ms. Frost said.

"It behooves all of us to work together,'' she said, in an effort to increase the total pot of money appropriators on the subcommittees have to allocate.

But lobbyists also said that this year's budget battle will not be won solely in committee rooms.

"We can't just rely on our few friends to help us in the budget committees,'' Mr. Kruse said. "Invitations for members of Congress to visit schools will be at an all-time high.''

Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, said his organization has increased its budget by 10 percent this year to beef up its public-relations efforts and to help lobby individual lawmakers.

"The C.E.F. needs to be more powerful at the grassroots,'' Mr. Kealy said. "We know how it's done, but we need more muscle.''

Washington Editor Mark Pitsch also contributed to this story.

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