Budget Ripples Reach State, Local Officials
State and local education officials were beginning to feel the impact of the partial federal government shutdown by late last week, while the prospects for resolving the underlying political impasse over the federal budget remained unclear.
About 4,470 of the Department of Education's 5,000 employees were put on leave Nov. 14 and likely will not return to work until President Clinton and Congress agree on a temporary spending bill to replace the measure that expired Nov. 13.
As a result, daily transfers of federal funds under Title I, Pell Grants, and other programs have stopped, and department employees have been unavailable for technical assistance.
"We're beginning to get to where some states are showing a lot of concern," Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said at midweek. "By the end of the week, this will have a significant impact."
The shutdown was precipitated by the president's veto of a replacement stopgap spending plan, or continuing resolution, which he said would have cut too deeply into education and other social programs.
And he pledged to veto a revised plan passed late last week by the House and Senate that contained the same spending limits and would have committed the president to working with Congress to pass a seven-year balanced budget by Dec. 31.
"I'm for a balanced budget," President Clinton said in a CBS News interview. "But when you take all of our obligations ... to young people and education, I can't support it."
Republicans accused Mr. Clinton of grandstanding in anticipation of the 1996 presidential election, and said that plans he has offered to erase the federal deficit lack credibility.
"He wants a lot more money. He wants more taxes, and he wants to increase the deficit," Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in a floor speech.
Twenty-two House Democrats also urged Mr. Clinton to support the goal of a balanced-budget plan. "Such a step is warranted given the magnitude of the current budget crisis," they wrote in a letter to the president.
The budget confrontation ensued after Congress failed to approve all 13 appropriations bills that pay for the federal government in time for the start of fiscal 1996 on Oct. 1. That situation created the need for temporary extensions of spending authority.
In the event that they cannot agree on a continuing resolution, Mr. Clinton and Congress have pledged to pass at least some of the pending 1996 spending bills to slowly reopen federal agencies.
The Education Department, however, will probably not be high on the list. The Senate spending bill for that agency--which also covers the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services--has been stalled by controversy over labor and abortion policies.
The spending bill passed by the House would cut $3.5 billion from the department's 1995 discretionary-spending level of $26.7 billion.
And the department is getting little sympathy from Republicans.
Because most education programs spend their money late in the fiscal year, "it's difficult to see how there will be a crisis in the short term," a Republican Senate aide said. "We're not hearing a lot about it."
Political fireworks also continued last week over the other component of the fiscal 1996 budget, a so-called "reconciliation" bill. A House-Senate conference committee adopted a reconciliation package last week that seeks sweeping savings in welfare, nutrition, and student-loan programs as part of the gop's seven-year balanced-budget plan. (See related stories, pages 13 and 16.)
President Clinton said he would veto that measure as well. The House has approved the reconciliation bill; the Senate hoped to pass the measure by early this week.
If the government shutdown continues through the Thanksgiving weekend, its impact on school districts will increase.
For example, Derrick Muse, a budget analyst for the New Orleans public schools, last week tried to obtain $36,000 for a dropout-prevention program, and a recorded message told him that the money was not available.
State agencies, districts, and nonprofit organizations regularly draw installments of funds electronically under a variety of federal programs, usually just a few days before the states expect to spend the money, Mr. Smith of the Education Department explained in an interview.
"And when the federal government pays the largest part of a grant, it's more likely that the effect will be felt more quickly," he said.
Most of the money that would have gone out last week was appropriated in the fiscal 1995 budget. It would not be affected by a lack of spending authority, but if the shutdown continues there will be no one to make the payments.
Most federal education programs distribute money later in the fiscal year, and the delay in enacting 1996 appropriations would not be directly felt until next year. One exception is impact aid, which is generally allocated early in the fiscal year, and districts dependent on it are already feeling the pinch. (See related story, page 15.)
Educators also expressed concern that federal officials were not available to answer their questions. Clearing up confusion over new Title I rules, for instance, is an ongoing concern.
"When questions come up, you wonder whether you can do something, so you pick up the phone and call the department," said Sharon Schonhaut, the Title I director for the Denver public schools. "Now we can't do that."
The government shutdown also disrupted several education-related events:
- The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, canceled its quarterly meeting, which was to be held in Seattle, because most of its staff had been furloughed. The meeting has not been rescheduled. The swearing-in of several new board members was also postponed, possibly until early next year.
- Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin was moderating a panel discussion at a three-day Goals 2000 teachers' forum sponsored by the department when she was called away to attend a meeting on the shutdown. The closing also prevented Terry Knecht Dozier, a teacher who serves as an adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, from making closing remarks at the meeting.
- The National Council on Disability canceled a reception honoring Bengt Linguist, an official with the United Nations Commission for Social Development on Disability.
Washington Editor Mark Pitsch contributed to this story.