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Negotiators Fail To Reach Accord on School Aid

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Washington

While congressional negotiators failed last week to reach a final agreement on the fiscal 1996 budget, lawmakers indicated that the debate on next year's budget may be less acrimonious.

Before adjourning for a two-week recess on March 29, a House-Senate conference committee had tentatively agreed to give the Department of Education about $24.1 billion in discretionary funding for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, compared with $24.5 billion the previous year.

But no agreements have been reached in other areas covered by the omnibus bill, which would pay for several agencies now operating under a temporary continuing resolution. Some policy issues also remain unresolved.

House and Senate Republicans agreed in March to add language allowing school districts to seek grants under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act even if their states opt out. But the lawmakers had not decided whether states would be able to veto local participation, aides said. It is also unclear whether the bill would include other Goals 2000 changes sought by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over education. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1995.)

Republicans were also divided over a House proposal to cap federally administered direct loans for college students at 40 percent of total loan volume. Such loans make up about a third of the Education Department's current loan volume. The Clinton administration wants to expand the program.

Veto Threat

At a hearing on fiscal 1997 funding held last week by the House appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, administration officials weighed in on another issue still under debate in the negotiations on fiscal 1996. They assailed a Senate plan to delay the availability of $1.3 billion in Title I remedial-education money for the current fiscal year.

Delaying disbursement from July 1 to Oct. 1 of this year, the beginning of fiscal 1997, would allow Congress to increase federal school aid for the 1995-96 school year while meeting budget caps by counting some Title I outlays against 1997 targets.

"It sends the wrong message about the federal commitment," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore announced last week that Mr. Clinton would veto the $163 billion omnibus spending bill if environmental-policy amendments the administration opposes are not removed.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told reporters that if an agreement was not reached before the current stopgap spending bill expires on April 24, Congress would pass a 13th continuing resolution that would finance agencies through March 30, 1997--halfway through fiscal 1997.

Extending the terms of the current stopgap bill would mean a $3.1 billion cut in Education Department funding compared with fiscal 1995.

And the ongoing stalemate continues to cause problems for local school administrators trying to plan budgets without final federal-aid totals for the current school year. Some districts have sent out layoff notices in fear that they will not be able to retain federally supported staff or have altered plans for summer programs. (See Education Week, April 10, 1996.)

Better Outlook

As administration officials and the GOP leadership traded barbs over the still-unresolved 1996 budget, the atmosphere at last week's hearings on 1997 education spending was more cordial.

There were some harsh words for Mr. Clinton's proposed 1997 budget, which calls for a $1.1 billion rise in discretionary spending over the Education Department's 1995 budget. Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., called some of its proposed increases "mind-boggling."

But the exchanges lacked much of the partisan acrimony that has characterized budget talks over the past year.

Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, said the administration as well as lawmakers were "stopping to ask not only how much money we're getting but what results are we getting."

Mr. Porter said in an interview that his panel is likely to treat the Education Department more favorably in fiscal 1997. Budget leaders allocated his subcommittee $61 billion to spend on programs under its jurisdiction in 1996, $9 billion below 1995 levels.

"The leadership ... has seen that the allocation to this committee was relatively low," Mr. Porter said. "I think there will be another attempt to fix that and not require such deep cuts."

Lawmakers praised the administration for proposing to distribute $1 billion in Title I aid through a formula targeting the neediest schools. This cannot be done without altering the Title I law, but Mr. Porter said he was trying to find a way to circumvent that restriction.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley is scheduled to testify before the subcommittee on May 9. The panel is expected to mark up a 1997 spending bill soon thereafter.

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