Clinton Budget Targets Reform, Poor Schools
Washington President Clinton asked Congress last week to increase federal funding for high-poverty schools, professional development, college aid, and his own education-reform programs as he issued a budget request for fiscal 1997 that is similar to his earlier spending plans.
The budget does, however, include two new initiatives: a proposed $130 million merit-scholarship program for high school students who graduate in the top 5 percent of their classes and a $250 million school-technology fund that would be used to leverage local contributions. The president also proposed increases in other school-technology programs, building on a theme he has stressed in recent speeches and school visits.
Mr. Clinton would offset these spending increases by eliminating 38 education programs for a savings of $760 million. Most of them, notably the block-grant program formerly known as Chapter 2, have been targeted before. But the National Diffusion Network, which disseminates model educational programs, and two migrant-education programs are new to the hit list.
The budget would also severely cut impact-aid payments for districts with federal property and slash library programs.
In addition to the new proposals, Mr. Clinton wants significantly more money for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the Title I compensatory-education program, charter schools, the Eisenhower professional-development program, and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. (See tables, pages 26-27.)
"This budget is the product of difficult choices we have made," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a March 19 news conference here.
Basis of Comparison
Mr. Clinton's $1.64 trillion budget plan for fiscal 1997, which begins Oct. 1, uses 1995 funding levels as its primary point of comparison because a final budget for fiscal 1996, which began last October, has not been passed.
Under Mr. Clinton's plan, the Department of Education's overall budget would be $30.2 billion in 1997, down from $32.4 billion in 1995, largely due to forecasts of lower interest rates for student-loan programs.
The spending bill approved by the Senate last week would set the department's fiscal 1996 budget at $29.5 billion. The level in a companion House bill would be $29 billion, though $1.4 billion of that would be contingent on a long-term deal between Congress and the White House to balance the federal budget.
The president's proposed 1997 budget asks for $25.6 billion in discretionary education spending, about $1.1 billion more than the 1995 level. But the department's spending power would actually increase by about $1.3 billion, since the 1995 budget included more funding for Pell Grants than was actually required. Officials expect demand for the grants to continue to drop, and past surpluses can be spent in fiscal 1996 and 1997.
As Congress enters what could be the home stretch for a 1996 budget, the administration is hoping for $24.1 billion in discretionary spending for the current fiscal year, which would amount to roughly the same level of spending authority the department had last year. The Senate bill would provide almost that much; the House bill offers $2.6 billion less, a gap that would shrink to $1.23 billion if the "contingent" funds became available.
Congress moved closer to a fiscal 1996 budget when the Senate passed its omnibus spending bill on a 79-21 vote March 19.
House and Senate members began working later in the week to reconcile their omnibus bills, which would finance the Department of Education and several other federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year.
Temporary funding for those agencies was set to expire March 22, but lawmakers voted late last week to extend stopgap funding through March 29.
The large difference in the bills' education provisions came about when the Senate voted to increase 1996 school aid in its omnibus bill by $1.3 billion. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)
Before passing the bill last week, the Senate voted 81-19 to add $17 million for the AmeriCorps national-service program, which would bring its budget for this fiscal year to $400 million. The House would fund the program only if a budget deal is struck.
Besides resolving numerical differences, conferees must decide whether to make spending contingent on such a deal. The House bill takes that approach with many programs, including $1.4 billion in education aid. The Senate amendment took education programs out of the contingency category.
After President Clinton met with congressional leaders last week, the participants' comments were cautiously optimistic.
"I'd say the objectives of the meeting were really to identify those agenda items that need to be pressed in the next nine days," Michael D. McCurry, the White House spokesman, told reporters. "And the president is satisfied that they wanted to get on with the work of doing that agenda."
As for the president's 1997plan, Republicans were unimpressed.
"I give him a high mark on politics and an F for responsibility," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "We'd all like to do these things and not have to worry about balancing the budget."
But education lobbyists argued that those sentiments may not prevail when it comes to education programs, noting polls that indicate public support for such spending and the recent Senate vote.
In debate on the stopgap spending bill last week, the House defeated by only 13 votes, 207-194, a motion to instruct conferees to adopt the higher Senate spending levels for fiscal 1996
"Some are already discounting the overall budget, but as far as education, that is not the case," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group here.
Like earlier Clinton budgets, the 1997 plan would concentrate the largest increases on the president's own initiatives. For example, funding for Goals 2000 would increase to $491 million, $120 million more than in 1995.
Also favored for increases are the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, immigrant education, special-education programs, and education research. Bilingual education and vocational education would receive approximately level funding.
Several student-aid programs would also get funding hikes under the 1997 Clinton plan, which would boost the maximum Pell Grant by 15 percent, to $2,700.
"Our general reaction is favorable," said David Merkowitz, the spokesman for the American Council on Education, a Washington group representing higher education. "But obviously it will be hard for him to get everything he's asking for."
Out of Favor
Advocates for other programs had more to complain about.
Impact aid, for example, would fall to $617 million under the proposal, a $111 million drop compared with fiscal 1995.
"A cut like this will have a devastating effect on many school districts and communities," said John B. Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin pointed out, however, that the budget would add $7 million for facilities in impact-aid districts.
"We have to present the most appropriate use of those funds and that is what we do," she said.