Once Again, Tough Talk on School Spending
Senate Republicans and President Clinton sparred last week over education spending priorities upon the release of the Republicans' five-year budget proposal, signaling the start of the annual battle of the budget.
At the same time, GOP senators failed to block a filibuster on a proposal by Sens. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., to allow tax-free savings accounts for K-12 education. Debate on the Coverdell measure, which will continue this week, also became tangled in larger questions about school construction funding--a Clinton administration priority for fiscal 1999.
The proposed Senate version of the budget resolution--Congress' nonbinding blueprint for federal spending levels for the next five years--would increase funding for special education and an existing education block grant program. Overall, though, the budget resolution laid out by the Senate GOP would closely follow last year's bipartisan funding agreement, leaving little leeway for increased education spending.
It also would turn a cold shoulder on Mr. Clinton's $12 billion class-size-reduction initiative and his related proposals for hiring 100,000 new teachers and helping schools with construction costs.
"Existing federal education program consolidation and reform can achieve the stated goal without creating another federal program," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., wrote in the resolution, released March 17.
That view did not sit well with the president.
"If the Republican budget says no to new teachers and smaller classes, no to modernizing our schools, no to investing in higher standards for our children, the American people should say no to that budget," Mr. Clinton said in a speech to members of the AFL-CIO, shortly before the budget resolution cleared the Senate Budget Committee on a 12-10, party-line vote March 18.
In step with last year's balanced-budget agreement, the Senate resolution would give $47 billion in fiscal 1999 for the spending category that includes education, training, and social services, up $294 million, or 0.6 percent, from fiscal 1998.
In line with GOP proposals to increase special education funding to districts, it recommends an increase of $2.5 billion over five years for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provided $4.53 billion in grants to states this year. It does not set out a specific funding amount for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The document also reflects the GOP's desire to send more money directly to local districts. It recommends an increase of $522 million next year and $6.3 billion over five years for the Title VI Innovative Education Program Strategies block grant, which is funded at $350 million this year. Under the Senate plan, the Title VI programs could grow to encompass existing education programs recommended for block-granting by the Senate Education Task Force, a group headed by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Shortly after the Budget Committee approved the spending plan last week, a coalition of education groups warned that the relatively small increase it allows would not sustain current funding levels for education programs, after adjustments for inflation.
"Something is going to get squeezed in education," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying coalition of school groups, which released its annual "Education Budget Alert" on March 19. Mr. Kealy cited recent remarks by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who said he supports block-granting some education programs and spending any savings in administration on transportation.
The GOP maintains that President Clinton's proposed fiscal 1999 education initiatives, which include federal aid for cutting class size to 18 students in grades 1 to 3, hiring 100,000 new teachers, and paying the interest on school construction bonds, are local responsibilities. Republicans argue that putting more funds into special education would free up more local money for hiring teachers and building new schools.
The budget resolution still needs the approval of the full Senate. It could be voted on as early as this week, according to the Senate Budget Committee staff. The House plans to write a separate resolution after it returns from a three-week break late next month. Budgeters will then mesh the two documents into one agreement.
Meanwhile, President Clinton has said he would veto the plan for tax-free education savings accounts, which the House approved late last year by a 230-198 vote. ("House Approves GOP's School Savings Plan; Budget Gets Extension," Oct. 29, 1997.)
In the Senate last week, several Democrats, including Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., were poised to add school construction language to the bill despite the protests of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was concerned that debate over Democratic amendments would delay other Senate action.
Sen. Moseley-Braun's amendment would pay the interest on $22 billion in school construction bonds in fiscal 1999 and 2000, said Mike Briggs, her spokesman.
Even as the measure failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to prevent a Democratic filibuster last week, postponing debate on the merits of the bill until at least this week, some school lobbyists were lining up to criticize the tax-free-accounts idea.
"It's a backdoor voucher," said Sally N. McConnell, the government-relations director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. "There's so much evidence it would benefit the wealthy and not the poor children, and it would not enhance school choice."
Sen. Coverdell maintains, however, that 70 percent of the families who would take advantage of the plan--which would allow parents and others to set up tax-exempt savings accounts to be used for a variety of educational expenses, including tuition--would send their children to public schools.