Seven Months Late, Congress Approves Budget
After seven months of haggling and 13 temporary spending bills, Congress and the White House finally agreed last week to a permanent fiscal 1996 budget for the Department of Education and several other federal agencies, setting school aid close to 1995 levels.
The department will receive $24.1 billion in discretionary funds. That amounts to $456 million less in real spending power than the agency had in fiscal 1995, which ended Sept. 30.
"I want to applaud those members of the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who have joined together to restore the proud tradition of bipartisan support for education," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told reporters.
After threatening earlier this year to make record cuts in federal school aid, Republicans ultimately gave in to White House demands to restore funding for education, job-training, and environmental programs.
Republican leaders also backed down from proposals to cap the volume of student loans that could be administered through the direct-lending program. The Clinton administration wants to expand the program, which it argues will save money by cutting out the profits made by private lenders. Opponents contend that the Education Department will not be able to manage the program efficiently.
"I hope that [Congress] will correct that anomaly as soon as possible," Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said on the floor last week, warning that the issue is not settled.
The budget agreement also includes language amending the Goals 2000: Educate America Act to meet some concerns of the program's critics. (See related story, page 19.)
The education budget was part of a $160 billion omnibus spending bill that was passed 399-25 by the House on April 25. The Senate ratified the measure hours later, 88-11. President Clinton was scheduled to sign the bill into law late last week.
The long-awaited agreement was announced late on April 24, after two final days of tense negotiations between White House officials and congressional leaders. Most of the budget numbers had been agreed to earlier in the month; the main sticking points were legislative riders on environmental and abortion issues.
But the last round of talks also added $117 million to the amounts lawmakers had agreed on earlier for some education programs.
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act received another $66 million, boosting its allocation to $466 million, the same as last year.
Spending on Title I remedial education was raised by $32 million above the amount that had been agreed to earlier, and Title I grants to school districts will increase by about $28 million over fiscal 1995. Lawmakers had cut other Title I accounts, and thus the addition brings total spending on all Title I programs to the 1995 level of $7.2 billion.
Bilingual education was also given another $3 million, setting spending on that program at $178 million, which is still a $28 million cut from 1995.
The bill eliminates 21 education programs for $173 million in savings, including bilingual-education professional development and the National Diffusion Network.
"It's not perfect, but we're extremely pleased it's done," said Violet A. Boyer, the president of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group here. "The other important point is that it is a bipartisan agreement."
"This can legitimately be called a victory by the education community," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a group here that represents large urban districts, "even by the strange standards of Washington, by which everyone claims victory."
Indeed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle did so during floor debate on the bill last week.
Republicans boasted that the bill will cut $23 billion from the federal budget deficit. Combined with reductions made in 1995, they said, Congress achieved $34 billion in savings over 16 months.
For their part, Democrats said that they won the fight to prevent cuts in spending for education and other social programs.
But both sides also tried to downplay the partisan acrimony that prevailed in seven months of budgetary gridlock.
"This agreement shows what we can do when we work together," President Clinton told reporters. "I think the spirit of compromise worked."