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Funding Battle Changes Terms Of the Debate

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The bruising seven-month legislative war that ended with the passage of a compromise federal budget changed the terms of the debate on education spending and forced the education lobby to fight for the very survival of the programs it champions.

But when the dust cleared late last month, education groups--and President Clinton--had held most of their ground. The revolution-minded Republicans who fired the first shots more than a year ago achieved some reductions in government spending, but not the huge cuts they had envisioned. And the political price was high.

With Republicans still licking their wounds, observers agree that they are unlikely to call for big cuts in education programs again as they craft budget plans for fiscal 1997.

"I see a continuation of the 1996 budget or very close," said Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., a member of the House appropriations panel with jurisdiction over education spending. "But nowhere near the divisiveness and same level of debate."

Instead of going after domestic programs that Mr. Clinton successfully protected over the past year, congressional aides say, the focus will be on tax breaks and cuts in entitlement spending. But education lobbyists will still be playing defense in a tight-fisted budgetary climate.

"The president has the momentum, but it's because of the Republicans that budget cuts were made," said Amy Schenkenberg, a government-affairs associate with the conservative American Enterprise Institute here.

The long-term outlook for education spending may be determined by voters in November, when they decide whether President Clinton and the Republican congressional majority will remain in office.

Big Plans

The final 1996 budget gave the Department of Education $24.1 billion in discretionary funds. That amounts to only $456 million less in actual spending power than the agency had in fiscal 1995, which ended Sept. 30.

That incremental result is a far cry from the plans floated last spring by the Republicans, who took control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

In March 1995, the House voted to lop $1.7 billion from the department's 1995 budget in a rescissions bill. In May of last year, it endorsed a seven-year budget blueprint that sought the department's elimination. In July, the House approved an appropriations bill that sought to slice 1996 federal school aid by $3.7 billion under 1995 levels and defund two of Mr. Clinton's prized initiatives, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the AmeriCorps national-service program.

"Republicans were a well-oiled, highly efficient machine," said Jerry Morris, the director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers. "The Democrats were standing there naked before the world in a very diminished capacity."

"We knew things would be tough, but the degree of cuts really took your breath away," said Michael A. Stephens, who was the top Democratic aide on the House subcommittee that oversees education funding before leaving this year to become vice president of the Van Scoyoc Associates Inc. consulting firm here.

Rep. Miller said that the GOP was simply sticking to election promises to balance the federal budget and downsize government.

"There was no effort to target any one area," he said. "We had a certain amount of money, and education has to compete with programs like cancer research."

New Strategies

At first, education groups were not sure how to respond to the GOP juggernaut. Some doubted the wisdom of partisan attacks, or of criticizing a balanced federal budget.

Besides, generating interest outside of Washington was not easy. Budget talk made eyes glaze over. Because most federal school aid reaches states a year after it is appropriated, it was hard to generate immediate concern.

When the House rescissions bill passed, lobbyists said, an alarm went off.

"You could debate as long as you wanted, but they were proposing to cut $1.7 billion--now," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition here.

In May 1995, several education groups formed the Education First Alliance and paid consultants to come up with media and telephone campaigns. The CEF sent "community-action kits" to educators, urging them to write letters to local newspapers and hold rallies. The National Education Association produced a videotape for its members.

"We think the nature of political dynamics have changed permanently," Mr. Morris said. "By necessity, there must be more time and effort to communicate issues to our members and use technology."

Contrary Signs

But even as House Republicans celebrated last year's spring victories that alarmed the education community, there were signs that the Senate--and the American public--might not go along with large budget cuts.

In March 1995, the Senate failed by one vote to pass a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At about the same time, the GOP was buffeted by negative publicity about the House proposal to convert the federal school-meals programs into a state-run block grant. (See Education Week, March 29, 1995.)

That plan was ultimately blocked by senators.

"This was something that people could understand," said Susan Frost, a former executive director of the CEF who is now a special adviser on budget policy to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "It was motherhood and apple pie."

"A lot of it was exaggeration," countered Rep. Miller. "It became a very partisan issue."

President Clinton focused public attention on school issues when he vetoed a scaled-back version of the rescissions bill in June, citing the $874 million in proposed education cuts that remained after a House-Senate conference. Mr. Clinton ultimately signed a measure that cut $574 million from the 1995 education budget. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

But his first veto marked the beginning of a bolder White House strategy of using the veto to protect domestic priorities--and making proposed education cuts a prominent part of the campaign for public support. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

The Tide Turns

But most observers agree that the tide did not truly begin to turn until the fall, when the budget battle went into the home stretch.

In September, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate's education-appropriations panel, set up a confrontation between more moderate GOP senators and House budget-cutters when he made education a priority in his 1996 spending bill, giving the Education Department $1.5 billion more than the House did.

President Clinton's veto of a budget-reconciliation bill proposing cuts in entitlement programs was upheld. And Republicans' willpower began to erode seriously when the public blamed them for the two government shutdowns that closed many agencies between November and January as a result of the budgetary impasse.

"Republicans had said that they would do what they had to to get budget cuts, so when the government shut down, the public blamed them," Ms. Schenkenberg said.

Republicans admit that they underestimated the veto threat.

"I think that's a fair statement," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "If you look at other Republican presidents, you would send them an appropriation, they might not like it, but they would sign it."

The administration ratcheted up its rhetorical attacks early this year, when the Education Department began projecting, at state and county levels, the severe cuts in federal aid that would occur if terms of the stopgap spending bills funding the agency were extended through the year. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

And local educators began to pay attention when they began drawing up their budgets for the 1996-97 school year, Ms. Frost said.

"I think it got confusing at first for most people," she said. "And people had a hard time believing it."

Claiming Victory

When President Clinton signed the $160 billion omnibus appropriations bill April 26, ending the budget fight, Democrats boasted that he had pushed the Republicans a great distance toward his spending and policy goals. And his job ratings in opinion polls have been favorable.

But Republicans say they deserve credit for forcing Mr. Clinton to accept the goal of balancing the federal budget over seven years. And they noted that they produced some $23 billion in savings between fiscal 1995 and 1996.

"The question is not whether I'm pleased or not, but whether we prioritized fairly or made some fair contributions to deficit reduction," said Mr. Porter. "I'd say the answer is yes."


1. Program is jointly run by the departments of Labor and Education; each carries half of its funding.

2. Some funding for these accounts will not be available until Oct. 1, 1996.

3. President's 1996 budget proposed including Even Start in a new literacy block grant.

4. President proposes to shift this program from school improvement to the bilingual-education section of the budget.

5. President proposed 1996 vocational-education funding, 1997 library funding, and funding for special education and adult education for fiscal 1996 and fiscal 1997 under his plans to rewrite those programs.

6. Chart reflects both appropriations and estimated actual spending for the Pell Grant program. The program has run surpluses in some years and spent the carried-over funds in others.

7. Not all programs in this category are listed; items will not add to total.

8. Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.

9. Administered by the Department of the Interior.

SOURCES: U.S. Congress, Departments of Education, Interior, and Health and Human Services.

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