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Unusual Budget Year Yields Funding Gains For School Programs

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When President Clinton signed the $36.1 billion federal education spending bill on Nov. 13, it was the culmination of a year in which Democrats and Republicans alike deemed education a priority, but set policy agendas that often clashed.

In the end, most education programs emerged from the appropriations process with significant funding increases. Discretionary spending on Department of Education programs received an overall raise of $3.1 billion, nearly 12 percent, to $29.4 billion. That hike for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 came on top of increases in the fiscal 1997 and 1996 budgets.

"It was a banner year for education," said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education.

Mr. Clinton made education a major focus of his 1996 re-election campaign and his State of the Union Address in February, and GOP leaders followed suit with proposals of their own. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

But whether education can continue to notch up increases under the terms of a five-year balanced-budget plan negotiated this year is a question that many school groups are asking.

What's more, Republicans in Congress have vowed to continue to press for more block-grant funding for school programs, taking their lead from an amendment sponsored by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that the Senate passed this fall. If federal education dollars were rolled into block grants, the Education Department would have little say in how states and school districts spent the money.

The Gorton amendment, which would have turned most federal education aid into block grants, startled many Democrats and education groups. Even though the proposal died in House-Senate conference committee negotiations, observers expect it to resurface in coming years, as Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Sen. Gorton have promised.

Grant Boosts

Many of this year's funding increases will go to programs that award competitive grants, such as the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund. The initiative, which saw its funding balloon from $200 million to $425 million, supports school technology projects.

That means "whatever impact Congress wants to have is restricted to school districts that have the capacity to write an award-winning grant," said Bruce Hunter, the government-relations director for the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va.

Of interest to more school districts is special education. For fiscal 1998, Congress boosted support for special education state grants by 19.7 percent, to $4.5 billion, a hike that will mean more than $100 in additional federal aid per special education student.

Local Views

Still, rising special education costs and limited federal special education spending continue to concern many educators.

Jim Dryden, the principal of the 1,200-student Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, Md., said more of his time these days is consumed by coordinating special education services for students. Further, regular education teachers often have to help out with special education, he said, adding that he fears nondisabled students' educations may suffer.

Guy W. Sims, the superintendent of the 32,500-student Muscogee County, Ga., schools, said he has resorted to using federal impact aid--funding earmarked for districts affected by the presence of federal installations--to cover special education costs. Part of this year's increase in the district's impact-aid allocation will likely go to hire more special education staff members, he said.

President Clinton proposed cutting impact aid by 9 percent. Instead, Congress voted to increase such spending by 11 percent, to $808 million.

Mr. Sims said maintaining the funding is vital in a district such as his with an Army base, which is not subject to local property taxes. Losing impact-aid money "would have been a tremendous cut in our operating budget," Mr. Sims said. He said he might have had to lay off teachers and other employees if the president's budget request had been honored.

Mr. Clinton also had proposed entirely eliminating funding for the Title VI block grant, which provides money for local school reform and improvement efforts. While the program offers a fairly modest source of aid, its recipients say the extra dollars, with few strings attached, help fill in funding gaps. Congress approved a $350 million appropriation for the Title VI block grants program for fiscal 1998, up from $310 million last year.

"It gives us a little extra boost," said John Richardson, the principal of the 510-student Sunny Slope Elementary School in Port Orchard, Wash.

One big budget disappointment for schools is the spending law's lack of aid for school construction. President Clinton proposed a new $5 billion, five-year initiative to help local districts pay interest on school construction bonds. That proposal was dropped last spring during negotiations on the five-year balanced-budget plan.

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