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New Budgets More Generous, But Education Cuts Remain

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Congress acted last week on separate bills that would fund the Education Department and other agencies through the end of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but at levels so low that President Clinton has vowed to veto them.

On a 209-206 vote, the House passed a bill March 6 that would provide almost $21.2 billion in discretionary education funding, $3.3 billion less than in fiscal 1995. However, the bill would provide nearly $1.4 billion more in school aid if President Clinton and Congress reach a long-term budget deal, for a total of $22.56 billion.

A Senate version headed for the floor late last week uses the same "contingency" mechanism. Its initial education appropriations would amount to a $2.8 billion cut from 1995 discretionary spending levels but would add $1.7 billion upon the approval of a budget deal, for a total of $23.4 billion, $1.1 billion less than was spent this year. (See chart, page 32.)

The initial appropriations bill approved by the House in August offered $20.8 billion, and the companion bill drafted by the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed $22.1 billion in discretionary spending. President Clinton had requested almost $26.2 billion, and administration officials have insisted that Congress at least maintain level funding.

"Had they proposed these bills without the contingency, clearly it would have been a step forward," Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said.

The contingency idea came out of weeks of negotiations between House and Senate leaders. And the two moved closer on some education issues, splitting their differences on bilingual-education, school-to-work, and other programs.

Intramural Negotiation

But differences remain on about 30 items, including the amount of supplemental funds that would be available under the contingency clauses. For example, the House bill would boost Title I remedial-education spending to $6.5 billion, while the Senate would raise that to $7.2 billion, the same as last year's level, if a budget deal were struck.

The Senate would provide $290 million for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, plus an additional $60 million from the contingency fund. The House, which had originally proposed killing the president's reform initiative, would offer $390 million, all of it contingent on a budget deal.

The House and Senate are also divided over appropriations for the District of Columbia, which have been stalled for months over a proposal to provide federal funds to help low-income families there pay private and religious school tuition. The House has approved a compromise version that would provide $5 million for vouchers if city officials approved, but Democrats blocked it in the Senate. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

The omnibus House and Senate bills debated last week include appropriations provisions for multiple agencies whose regular spending bills have been delayed or vetoed, as well as aid for flood-stricken states and Bosnia peace-keeping efforts. But House leaders, who crafted the voucher plan, did not include the District of Columbia budget in their version.

The Senate bill incorporated provisions that would eliminate the voucher plan and apply the $5 million toward a school-renovation fund while also keeping about $10 million in other school-reform programs for the District of Columbia.

Schools Still Waiting

Despite last week's action, school systems awaiting federal spending decisions are in no better shape to develop final budgets for the 1995-96 school year.

"Boards and superintendents in every county of Iowa don't know what to do," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said at a budget hearing last week. "They have to take action based on what's hard and fast."

Mr. Smith said that it is too early for the department to offer guidance. Many school districts have been assuming overall reductions of 15 percent or more for budgeting purposes. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

And few observers were willing to predict what will happen on March 15, when the stopgap bill now funding the Education Department and other agencies expires.

A House-Senate conference would likely take place this week if the Senate passes its bill. But many differences remain, and President Clinton has threatened a veto. Lawmakers may opt to pass their 10th temporary continuing resolution this fiscal year to extend the current measure and avert another partial government shutdown.

"There's virtually no time between now and the 15th ... and the House and Senate will have a terrible time negotiating their differences," said Stanley Collender, the director of federal budget policy for the Price Waterhouse political-consulting firm.

Mr. Collender and others suggested that the House and Senate are acting separately as an "internal exercise" to advance negotiations among congressional Republicans. Some education lobbyists said the GOP leaders are trying to draw attention away from their parsimonious education proposals and their inability to end the budget struggle.

"They're becoming aware of the impact their cuts in education would have," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group here. "They want to show that they're doing something [to soften the impact], but this is smoke and mirrors.

"It could be that this creates an option where more negotiations could take place," Mr. Kealy added. "But more than anything, it's confusing the issue."

Invitation Extended

Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in floor debate last week that administration officials will be welcome at the negotiating table during a House-Senate conference on the continuing resolution.

White House officials said last week that the new Senate bill falls $7 billion short of what the president wants for education, environmental efforts, and other social programs.

"We'll meet the president halfway," Mr. Livingston said in floor debate. "We don't want to shut the government down, but it appears that the president does."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, held a hearing last week to ask Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley where they would recommend adding additional money.

Mr. Reich defended a summer-jobs program slated for elimination in some of the pending bills. Mr. Riley singled out Title I and the safe- and drug-free schools programs, and reiterated the administration's desire to hold his department's funding steady.

"It would be a real mistake to go under that level," he said. "We think it's a reasonable number to hold."

Mr. Specter faulted the administration for not providing credible proposals to offset additional spending that the chairman would like to provide.

Last week's lobbying efforts included a daylong forum sponsored by House Democrats to support school spending.

"People who ask me if money is the answer don't hesitate to put money into their own children's education," author and education advocate Jonathan Kozol said. "I don't know a better answer to poverty than money, and lots of it."

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