Senate Appropriators Advance Spending Bill
Senate appropriators quickly pushed through a plan last week that would give a higher-than-expected boost to education spending in fiscal 2000 while restructuring programs to prevent school violence and hire new teachers.
The bill unanimously passed the Appropriations Committee Sept. 28 and was poised for approval by the full Senate last Friday, the first day of the new fiscal year. It would give Department of Education programs a total of about $35.2 billion in discretionary funding, a 5 percent increase over the $33.5 billion allocation for fiscal 1999.
The spending plan relies on tricky maneuvering--taking funding from the Pentagon and Census Bureau budgets, as well borrowing money from projected fiscal 2001 allocations--to circumvent the tight budget caps that Congress and President Clinton agreed on two years ago.
Overall, education groups last week were more pleased with the Senate plan than its House counterpart, which would cut funding for some education programs.
"It's a good step forward to where we want to go, to a more substantial investment in education," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education groups. "It's always going to come down to 'What accounting method are they going to use?' "
The 1999 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, but Congress passed a continuing resolution last week that kept current spending levels in place and gave appropriators three additional weeks to complete a fiscal 2000 budget. The House Appropriations Committee passed its bill, with $33.3 billion for education, on a 33-26 party-line vote Sept. 30. ("GOP Plan Would Cut Spending on Education," Sept. 29, 1999.)
Some Democrats were troubled at the Senate's language on President Clinton's prized class-size-reduction plan, which is designed to help districts hire 100,000 new teachers over seven years. The program, which was replaced by the proposed GOP-backed Teacher Empowerment Act in the House spending bill, would be funded at $1.2 billion, the same amount it received in fiscal 1999, in the Senate plan.
While funding for it will continue to flow during the current school year, the program's authorization has expired. The Senate plan requires that the program be reauthorized by July 1, 2000--a time frame that some observers claim is too short--in order to receive the $1.2 billion.
In addition, the Senate bill dubs the president's plan the Teacher Assistance Initiative to reflect upcoming GOP legislation to restructure the current program. The Teacher Empowerment Act has also been introduced in the Senate and is being promoted by some of the chamber's most influential members, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R- Miss.
The class-size-reduction program, while popular with school officials, has also prompted uncertainty in the K-12 community. Because the program currently has to be reauthorized, or reapproved, by Congress annually, some administrators worry that they might hire a teacher with the funding one year, only to lose federal support the next.
Now that the first crop of 30,000 teachers has been hired for this school year, the Senate language has compounded anxiety over the program's future.
"What we have now is a bunch of teachers on payroll who just want an answer," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "This is the type of thing that makes it very hard to run a program."
Democrats, meanwhile, urged the Senate to reauthorize the language already being used for the class-size-reduction program.
"We've decided we need to lower class sizes; let's keep our eyes on the prize," said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the subcommittee that oversees education spending.
"There are some good things, but there are some big holes in this bill," Mr. Harkin added.
The Senate bill, S 1650, would also carve out $850.8 million for a new school violence initiative, using money from existing programs, including the $566 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program. The proposal was sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on education spending.
The bill on the floor of the Senate last Friday also included:
- A $320 million increase in Title I state grants, from $7.68 billion in fiscal 1999 to $8 billion, as requested by the president;
- A $911.5 million increase in special education state grants, a top GOP priority, which would raise total spending in that area from $5.05 billion to nearly $6 billion;
- $400 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the popular after-school program that was funded at $200 million this year; and
- $892 million for impact aid, up from $864 million.
Vol. 19, Issue 6, Page 28