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Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Education Budget Has Unprecedented 'Pork'

Education Budget Has Unprecedented 'Pork'

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The San Bernardino County, Calif., superintendent of schools issued a news release last week proudly announcing a $3 million federal grant to underwrite program development for a "virtual" high-tech high school.

"We tremendously appreciate the support of Congressman Jerry Lewis and former Congressman George Brown for their efforts in working to secure [this] funding," county Superintendent Herbert R. Fischer said in the Nov. 29 statement.

Across the nation, a small but growing list of school districts, universities, and other entities have similar reasons to celebrate. They, too, were singled out in the fiscal 2000 Department of Education budget that President Clinton signed into law last week as part of a larger omnibus budget agreement for the new funding year.

The trouble is, critics say, the earmarked money is being awarded without going through the traditional channels: the formula-based and competitive programs that make up most of the department's budget. Rather, such allocations are "earmarked" by lawmakers in what critics deride as "pork barrel" spending. ("Critics See 'Pork' in Budget Items Earmarked for Higher Education," Dec. 2, 1998.)

"Congress went absolutely nuts this year when it comes to earmarking," said Scott A. Hodge, a senior fellow for tax and budget policy at Citizens for a Sound Economy, a fiscal-responsibility advocacy group. "Earmarking completely undermines the discretion of agencies. ... It's the high point of congressional meddling."

Trend for Education

The practice of earmarking is nothing new. It has long been considered the grease that lubricates federal spending bills. But set-asides in education spending are a recent development, and they have increased dramatically in the past few budget cycles.

The Education Department budget for fiscal 2000, which began Oct. 1, contains 232 separate earmarks for specific projects or grantees totaling about $194 million—more than twice the $86 million doled out for 56 earmarks last year, according to the department. That's out of a total discretionary education budget of $35.6 billion, up from $33.5 billion in fiscal 1999.

In fiscal 1998, there were 18 earmarks, totaling $46 million, and in fiscal 1995 just two, totaling $6.5 million. In the past, the congressional report accompanying the budget often included nonbinding directives or suggestions to finance specific projects.

Among the earmarks in this year's budget are:

•$2 million to the 7,000-student Tupelo school district in Mississippi for technology innovation in education;

•$400,000 to the 127,000-student Macomb County (Mich.) Intermediate School District for after-school programs;

•$400,000 to the Alaska Department of Education's summer reading program; and

•Grants of $50,000 each for 21 districts in Alabama for "technology enhancements."

In addition, the Boston Music Education Collaborative is the beneficiary of $900,000 for a program to benefit public schools in that city. And the organizing committee for the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska is getting $1.5 million.

John Scofield, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, said that earmarks enable lawmakers to ensure funds for high-priority programs. "It's a way to get around the red tape in the Education Department," he said. Mr. Scofield also said that Congress earmarked only a small amount of the department's budget: less than 1 percent. "I don't think it's all that alarming," he said.

What's more, the programs that will receive the money have their merits.

For example, the San Bernardino County grant will help pay for classroom curriculum, technology training, and others efforts to step up the use of educational technology in high schools throughout the county, said Christine McGrew, a spokeswoman for the superintendent's office.

The county superintendent's office works with 33 K-12 school districts with a total of 360,000 students. Three of the districts have been actively involved in the high-tech high school project.

But regardless of such projects' quality, some argue that earmarking is simply bad appropriations policy.

"It completely bypasses the grant-making process," said David S. Byer, a vice president for government affairs at the Software and Information Industry Association, who said he was stunned by the number of earmarks attached to the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants program. Overall, there were 49 earmarks totaling roughly $32 million for the $149 million program.

"It is outrageous," said Bruce Hunter, the senior lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. He suggested that the "pork" dollars would be better spent supporting major K-12 programs, such as the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged children. Title I saw its appropriation increase $200 million this year.

Joel C. Packer, a senior lobbyist for the 2.5 million-member National Education Association and the president of the Committee for Education Funding, argues that the trend does not necessarily reflect changes in the overall federal budget, which has shifted from deficit spending to a surplus in recent years.

Rather, he suggests that the process got started with a few earmarks several years ago mostly for higher education. "Once it starts, it just sort of snowballs," he said.

Also, some observers say that the political resistance to earmarks in the education budget began to falter following the death of Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., in 1994.

Mr. Natcher "absolutely refused to accept earmarks" as the longtime chairman of the education appropriations panel and later the full committee, said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats.

Bipartisan Largess

Most people agree at least that the issue is not partisan: Republicans and Democrats alike have their share of set-asides in the budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, were among the many lawmakers to issue statements outlining specific education projects for their states funded in the final budget deal. Mr. Harkin, for example, secured $10 million for Iowa school construction projects and $4 million for a statewide educational technology initiative.

Scott Fleming, the Education Department's assistant secretary for legislation, said the department understands that Congress has the prerogative to earmark funds. "Whether it's the best thing to do, I'm not prepared to judge that," he said. "We all hope that indeed the judgments will reflect projects that do prove beneficial for education."

The day the Senate approved the final budget bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted what he saw as loads of pork in the $385 billion omnibus spending plan. Mr. McCain, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, was one of 24 senators who voted against the bill.

"The bill before the Senate today contains even more everyday, garden-variety pork-barrel spending—almost half a billion more than in the original bills," he said during floor debate on the package on Nov. 19.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 18-19

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