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Republicans Join in Call To Boost ED Budget

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Senate Republicans last week decided to throw in the towel on efforts to cap federal education funding by offering to match Democrats plan to raise spending $2.9 billion above this years level.

Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi unveiled an amendment to spread $2.3 billion across the Department of Education that would add to the $582 million in new money proposed by Senate appropriators one week earlier. Almost $1.5 billion of the money Mr. Lott proposed would go to K-12 programs such as Title I, special education, and school technology.

Mr. Lott offered his alternative in an attempt to reverse public perception that Republicans don't care about education after last year's proposals to slash the department, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., Mr. Lott's deputy, said last week.

In the House, meanwhile, more than 50 Republicans urged their leaders in a letter to support spending increases between $2 billion and $3 billion. House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said he expects negotiations between Congress and the White House to result in education increases.

With such momentum, it is suddenly almost certain that federal school spending will rise in the fiscal year that begins next week. The only questions are how much the total increase will be and which programs will benefit.

Differing Priorities

Mr. Lott's amendment would add $752 million to special education spending, $464 million for Title I compensatory education, and $200 million for education technology. House Republicans want more money for special education and the Title VI school-improvement-strategies program, formerly the Chapter 2 block grant.

Of the programs on the Republican wish lists, only Title I and school technology are Clinton administration priorities. Both Mr. Lott's amendment and the House Republicans' letter ignore President Clinton's desire to add money for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, professional development, and bilingual education. The alternative to Mr. Lott's plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would give an extra $136 million to Goals 2000 and an additional $135 million to professional development under the Eisenhower state grant program.

The proposals were stuck in gridlock late last week. Republican leaders contemplated whether to add the education money to a bill targeted toward education, labor, and health programs or to merge spending for those areas into a broader spending bill also funding such programs as national parks and the military. Congress and the president have until fiscal 1997 begins on Oct. 1 to agree on education funding or pass a temporary measure to keep the Department of Education open until the numbers are settled.

This year's debate is a stark contrast to the fight a year ago, when the House proposed a $3.5 billion cut in federal education spending. After five months of negotiations with the Senate and the Clinton administration, House Republicans relented and approved a plan that brought fiscal 1996 spending--$25.2 billion--close to the previous year's levels.

Education's fortunes started turning around when the Education Department and other agencies shut down in a stalemate over how to balance the federal budget, one lobbyist here said. Republican leaders dared Mr. Clinton to accept their school cuts as part of a seven-year deficit-elimination plan, and when he refused the tide began to turn, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

"All of a sudden we were at the top of the radar screen," Mr. Forkenbrock said. "The Republican leadership made a major error in thinking they could win big points with the American people by shutting the government down and forcing Clinton into their balanced budget."

Moderate Republicans came to agree with that analysis and said as much last week in a series of speeches and interviews.

Making Apologies

"Any political party that takes on education and the teaching profession does it at the risk of being called shortsighted," Rep. James Leach, R-Iowa, told the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group, last week.

"We cut much too much," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who heads the panel that writes the line-by-line education-spending bill. "We're going to put a fair amount back in."

Mr. Specter helped Mr. Lott design the most recent Senate gop plan to boost education spending. He also launched an amendment in March to reverse proposed education cuts by dipping into other sections of the federal budget. ("Senate Adds $1.3 Billion in School Aid to Bill," March 20, 1996.)

Despite the new rhetoric from Republicans, Democrats say they will harp on earlier GOP attempts to slash education funding. Mr. Harkin said he plans to remind voters that his opponent in this fall's Senate race, Rep. Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa, voted for the $3.5 billion education cut in fiscal 1996.

"The proof is what are you going to do when the election is not looming," Mr. Harkin said.

But Mr. Lightfoot said he will emphasize the Republican philosophy that federal programs should be scaled back and local school districts should be given more control. "It goes to a lot of bureaucratic red tape," he said. "We'd be better off giving it to local entities to use as they see fit."

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