Budget Plan Includes Public-School-Choice Provision
The House last Thursday approved a budget bill that ironed out remaining differences between Congress and the White House over education spending in fiscal 2000 and other programs contained in the five budget bills that President Clinton had yet to sign into law.
The nearly $36 billion education budget negotiated by the Clinton administration and federal lawmakers contained several last-minute surprises, including funding for a small-schools initiative and a controversial measure that would require consistently poor-performing schools to provide students with public school choice.
The choice measure, which was pushed by Republicans as part of an agreement to set aside $134 million for chronically failing schools, has prompted opposition from many education groups.
"How is that really helping to turn around low- performing schools?" said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the 2.5-million-member National Education Association. He argued that the provision raised "huge practical and logistical issues" for districts.
The final plan—which at press time Friday was awaiting Senate approval—would increase the Department of Education's discretionary budget to about $35.6 billion, a $2.1 billion or 6.3 percent hike from fiscal 1999. The total includes a Republican-backed cut of 0.38 percent in all federal agencies' budgets.
Late last Thursday, the House voted 296-135 to approve the final budget plan, which combined the five outstanding budget bills. Pending Senate approval, the president was expected to sign the package into law. But disputes over unrelated provisions involving the dairy industry stalled Senate action last week. The budget was already far behind schedule; the new fiscal year began Oct. 1 and, since then, Congress has had to pass stopgap spending measures to keep the government running.
Negotiators overcame a major stumbling block in the budget talks when they agreed Nov. 10 to keep Mr. Clinton's class-size-reduction program largely intact, albeit with several changes, including allowing 25 percent of class-size funds to be used for professional development rather than the current 15 percent. The original Republican budget bill, which Mr. Clinton vetoed, would have allowed class-size dollars to be used for a variety of educational purposes.
The final budget plan contains $1.3 billion for the program, $100 million more than it received last year, but $100 million less than the president had requested.
The budget plan also would provide a $209 million—or a 2.7 percentincrease in Title I grants to school districts in fiscal 2000, for a total of about $7.94 billion. Under the deal, $134 million of that money would be earmarked for efforts to turn around consistently poor-performing schools. The administration initially requested $200 million for that purpose, but to win Republican support, the White House agreed to a requirement that districts in that category offer public school choice to their students within district boundaries unless a district can show that it does not have the capacity to provide all students with that option.
Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, last week praised the agreement's provisions on school choice.
"Republicans in Congress have been looking forward to this day for years," he said in a written statement. "For the first time, school districts must give parents the choice of taking their children out of schools that are identified as in 'school improvement' or in 'corrective action.' "But many education groups are much less sanguine."While we support public school choice as one of [the] local options, this provision mandates that ... public school choice must be among them," representatives of 20 education organizations wrote in a Nov. 16 letter to congressional leaders and the president. "This mandate is inconsistent with the current effort to provide more state and local flexibility in use of federal education funds."
Among the signatories are the two national teachers' unions, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National PTA. In the letter, the groups also complain that the budget deal earmarks funds for the accountability program, even though too many poor children, they say, are not being served by Title I at all.Scott Fleming, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for legislation, pointed out that many districts already have public-school- choice options available. He also stressed that the provision was only one aspect of the package. "Our fundamental goal here is to fix failing schools," he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, succeeded in amending the final budget bill to include $45 million for a new small-schools initiative. The money, which would be distributed in competitive grants to school districts, is designed to help create smaller learning communities for students in large high schools.Other provisions in the final budget deal include: an increase from $75 million in fiscal 1999 to $98 million for the Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants program, part of the Higher Education Act; a hike from $200 million to $450 million for the federal after-school program; and an increase from $698 million to $769 million for technology spending.
The budget deal also would eliminate the Goals 2000 program at the end of fiscal 2000. Observers said the White House and Congress had planned to phase out Goals 2000 next year.
As proposed, last week's final budget plan would be costlier than either the president or Congress had originally proposed. Mr. Clinton had requested $34.7 billion, while the Republican bill that he vetoed totaled $35 billion.The final $35.6 billion package, however, contains an unprecedented amount of so-called "forward funding"—money that is included in the current budget but cannot be spent until fiscal 2001, which begins next Oct. 1. Forward funding would grow from $6.2 billion in fiscal 1999 to $12.4 billion in the new budget.
"We had three main priorities going into this debate," said Bruce Reed, the director of the White House domestic-policy council. Those priorities were: preserving the president's class-size-reduction program; increasing funding for key programs, such as after-school initiatives; and providing dedicated funds for accountability.
Mr. Reed said President Clinton's biggest disappointment in this year's education budget was Republicans' "insistence on not going along with our school construction initiative."
But while Congress did not enact the president's $25 billion school construction package, the House late last week voted to extend a more modest plan. The Qualified Zone Academy Bond program would provide $400 million a year in tax credits for two years to holders of bonds used for school renovation and repair projects and other school costs. The credits are meant to cover the costs of interest on the bonds. The Senate was also expected to approve the measure.
Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 22-24