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Budget Plan Emphasizes New Efforts

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President Clinton's budget proposal released last week would give large increases to education, but most of that money would go to new initiatives at the expense of some existing programs.

The White House wants to increase discretionary education funding to $31.2 billion for fiscal 1999, a 5.9 percent boost from the $29.4 billion being spent this year. The proposal includes a new school construction program, initiatives to reduce class sizes, additional funding for after-school programs, and money for teacher recruitment. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called the plan "extraordinarily ambitious."

Bruce Hunter

"Even though it's a balanced budget, this budget represents a greater increase in the federal investment in improving elementary and secondary education than any budget in the past 30 years," Mr. Riley said.

But several federal funding perennials, including special education, impact aid, and the Title VI block grant, could become victims of the new initiatives, some critics complain. Under the president's proposal, special education grants would receive only a slight increase, while impact aid would lose dollars and funding for the Title VI program would be eliminated.

Rep. Robert L. Livingston

Many of the new programs, however, hinge on the federal government's share of a proposed settlement of a multistate lawsuit against the tobacco industry, and education officials did not appear last week to have an alternative plan. Some observers say that strategy is risky, and many of the proposals will likely end up being merely symbolic.

GOP leaders immediately blasted the plan and its funding sources. Rep. Robert L. Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, called it a return to the era of "spend more, tax more."

"The president's budget violates the spirit of last year's discretionary spending caps and has no basis in legislative reality," Mr. Livingston said. "It relies on assumed funding sources such as the tobacco settlement and new user fees, which may never be enacted, to make its numbers work."

Work To Do

The House and Senate will write their own versions of the fiscal 1999 budget, then begin holding hearings on the budget in coming months. Congress needs to wrap up its work before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Observers expect Congress to work quickly because this year is an election year, and members want to recess as early as possible to campaign.

But if the White House holds it breath waiting for a tobacco settlement this year, "it will be blue in the face by the end of the year," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "I don't think they expect the final expenditure package to look anything like what they've proposed," he added.

Other education lobbyists were less pessimistic.

The president didn't yield on his tax priorities last year, they say. Now, Mr. Clinton wants to hike the federal tax on tobacco by up to $1.50 a pack over the next 10 years--in part to help pay for his initiatives--and to address school construction in a tax bill.

The tobacco-tax boost may generate revenues in addition to the settlement of the multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the nation's major cigarette manufacturers. Congress also would have to pass tax language to enact Mr. Clinton's pledge to subsidize nearly $20 billion in interest-free school construction bonds over the next 10 years.

"The ideas are very strong, and it will be tough for Congress to dismiss them," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying group representing 90 education groups. "I don't think [Republican lawmakers] can get a tax bill signed without accommodating the president in some way."

The tobacco settlement also figures in paying for some of the president's other child-related items in the budget, including major child-care initiatives.

Tobacco Questions

Still, many of the proposals clash with GOP leaders' plans for sending more federal aid to the local level through increased special education spending, block grants, and vouchers.

"The administration is interested only in federalizing education programs and concentrating more power in Washington," Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees K-12 education, said in a statement.

Proposed White House spending increases for the fiscal year that begins next Oct. 1 include:

  • $1.1 billion for a new program for class-size reductions in grades 1 to 3, as well as recruitment and training of 100,000 new teachers;
  • $200 million for expansion of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers to keep about 4,000 schools open late. The program received a $40 million appropriation in the current budget year, fiscal 1998.
  • A $392 million increase in the Title I program for disadvantaged students, to be distributed to high-poverty urban and rural schools, from $7.4 billion in 1998 to $7.8 billion in 1999; and
  • $200 million for a new Education Opportunity Zones initiative, for grants to help poor urban and rural districts improve accountability and teacher quality. A new $67 million teacher-recruitment and preparation program, to be proposed under the Higher Education Act reauthorization this year, would also help recruit and train teachers to work in high-poverty areas.

Uneven Growth

President Clinton also backed a $20 billion, 10-year plan to subsidize special 15-year school construction bonds. The initiative would be administered by the Department of the Treasury.

He also wants to allot $140 million for partnerships between colleges and universities and middle schools aimed at encouraging low-income students to pursue higher education.

In contrast to the new spending plans, special education state grants for students ages 3 to 21, a top funding priority for many Republicans, would be given only a slight increase--up $3 million to a total of $3.81 billion, a .01 percent hike. The president's proposal infuriated some education and disability-rights groups. ("GOP Upset Over Possibility of Minimal Spec. Ed. Raise," Feb. 4, 1998.)

B. Joseph Ballard, an assistant executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va., called the proposal "perfectly terrible," particularly compared with Republican proposals to dramatically increase special education funding for states and districts.

"However important the new initiatives may be, they should not have a damaging effect on vital existing programs," Mr. Ballard said.

But Secretary Riley argued that other programs, such as the class-size-reduction initiative and a planned literacy program, would help students with special needs. In addition, special education state grants have already received large increases for the past three years, he said.

Some education advocates, though, speculated that the Department of Education plans to leave it up to them to push Congress for increases during the appropriations process. If that's the plan, Mr. Ballard said, it's unfair. "That's just absolutely pathetic," Mr. Ballard said. "It says, 'You're on your own, kids.' "

Mr. Clinton again wants to cut back on impact aid, which reimburses districts for revenue lost because of federal activities, from $808 million to $696 million, a 14 percent decrease. And he wants to eliminate the Title VI block grant, a $350 million program that gives money directly to schools with few strings attached. Those programs, though, have been favorites of some members of Congress and received relatively large increases last year.

Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, called the proposed elimination of the block grant funding "a slap in the face" to the GOP.

But Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, last week defended the cut, which the department has proposed unsuccessfully for the past five years, and said the money saved could be better spent on the new White House proposals.

The Eisenhower professional-development state grants for teacher training would remain at their fiscal 1998 funding level, at $335 million.

In preparation for ending the federal role in school-to-work efforts by 2002, the Clinton-initiated program would receive a cut, from $200 million to $125 million.

Mr. Clinton also asked for additional money for two programs that received boosts last year. He wants a modest increase in the maximum Pell Grant for needy college students, from $3,000 to $3,100, and $100 million for charter schools, up from $80 million this year.

A new literacy initiative along the lines of America Reads, one of Mr. Clinton's proposals last year, would be funded at $260 million, if legislation is approved by Congress and signed by Mr. Clinton by July 1. The proposal would provide for teacher training and tutoring for students having trouble learning to read. If a program is not approved, the money will go to special education.

Staff Writer David J. Hoff contributed to this story.

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