Congress Approves Record Budget Increase for Ed. Dept.
The Department of Education will receive the largest-ever increase to its annual budget as part of the fiscal 2001 spending package President Clinton signed into law late last month.
The agreement, which came 21/2 months after the budget year began Oct. 1, hands the department an additional $6.5 billion for discretionary programs, for a total of $42.1 billion.
"First and foremost, this budget tops eight years of commitment to education with a dramatic new investment in our nation's schools," President Clinton said in a statement Dec. 15, the day Congress adopted the measure.
The president succeeded in securing first-time money for a school renovation program, as well as increases for federal class-size- reduction and after-school programs. After-school funding will nearly double, to $846 million, in fiscal 2001.
A key accomplishment for congressional Republicans was stepping up federal aid for special education costs. State grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act rose by nearly $1.4 billion, to $6.3 billion.
"Most importantly, I am pleased this bill contains a substantial increase in funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the retiring chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. "For many years, I have said that Congress must give priority to assisting children with disabilities."
Working in a lame-duck session after the November elections, Congress approved the education budget as part of an omnibus appropriations package that combined three outstanding spending bills covering several departments and agencies, the White House, and Congress itself. The House passed the bill 292-60, and the Senate passed it by a voice vote.
A 'Difficult' Process
"It has been a long, difficult process, but in the end we believe we've struck a responsible balance between increasing funding for such priorities as education and medical research, without overburdening the American taxpayer," the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., said a day before Congress approved the plan.
The Education Department total is about $1.5 billion less than was contained in an agreement reached between congressional appropriators and the White House before the Nov. 7 elections. That deal was scuttled by Republican leaders, who cited a measure on workplace safety that was unrelated to education. But after the elections, leading Republicans made clear they also objected to the spending totals in the agreement.
Even so, the final agreement provides $2 billion more for the Education Department than Mr. Clinton originally requested.
Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he was disappointed that Congress did not stick to the earlier deal, but he noted that the increase was still far more than in any previous year. He added that Congress and the White House were "fair" in deciding where to make needed cuts.
Negotiators also agreed to a 0.22 percent across-the-board cut, totaling $1 billion, in federal discretionary spending, excluding the $108.9 billion set aside for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
Beyond spending, the bill also delves into policy matters. In some cases, the legislation makes changes to existing programs; in others, it creates new programs.
Here are details about selected budget items and policy changes:
Title I: Grants to school districts under the Title I program for disadvantaged students—the largest federal K-12 initiative—saw a modest increase of $700 million, to a new total of $8.6 billion. Of that total, $225 million is reserved to help turn around low-performing schools, an increase from the $134 million the Clinton school improvement initiative received in fiscal 2000.
Congress made one key change to broaden Title I's public-school- choice requirement, which is designed to allow parents to transfer a child in a low-performing public school to a better public school in the same district.
When the Education Department provided written guidance early last year on how to implement the requirement, which was originally contained in the fiscal 2000 budget, some Republicans complained that the department limited the measure's impact by stating that it applied only to districts receiving federal school improvement funds. The new legislation clarifies that it applies to all Title I districts with schools identified as low-performing.
But the actual effect may be limited by language that excludes states with small populations, as well as states and districts in which the provision conflicts with state or local law, or local school board policy.
School Renovation: The new repair program for schools is designed to assist high-need districts with emergency repairs and renovation projects. It received $1.2 billion under the spending agreement, though nearly $300 million of that amount is set aside for either special education costs or renovation projects related to education technology.
In addition, $25 million is reserved for a new demonstration program to help charter schools acquire, renovate, or construct facilities. Finding facilities has been one of the chief obstacles many charter school operators have faced in getting started. Another $75 million of the school repair aid is intended for construction costs in districts with high concentrations of Native American students.
While the inclusion of the school repair initiative was considered a victory for President Clinton, he did not get all of the construction assistance he wanted. Mr. Clinton failed to persuade Republican leaders to include tax measures—based on a proposal championed by Reps. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., and Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y.— that would have subsidized about $25 billion in school construction bonds.
Class-Size Reduction: President Clinton's prized program to reduce class sizes in the early grades by providing money to hire new teachers increased to $1.6 billion, up from $1.3 billion in fiscal 2000, under the budget plan.
At the same time, Republicans succeeded in making the program slightly more flexible. Existing law had allowed districts with at least 10 percent of teachers who were not fully certified to spend all their program funds on professional development if granted a waiver by the Education Department or, in some cases, the state. Such a waiver will no longer be needed for districts under the new legislation.
Impact Aid: The federal impact-aid program, which gives financial help to school districts where the presence of federal installations reduces the local property-tax base, increased to $994 million, up from $907 million in fiscal 2000.
Also, lawmakers succeeded last fall in attaching a bill to reauthorize the program for three years to the annual defense-authorization legislation. The program was originally intended to be reauthorized as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which ultimately was bogged down in partisan disagreements.
Other education programs to see increases in fiscal 2001 include:
•Bilingual and immigrant education programs: $460 million, up from $406 million;
•The small-schools initiative, designed to help high schools restructure to create smaller learning environments: $125 million, up from $45 million;
•The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program: $644 million, up from $600 million; and
•Pell Grants for low-income college students: a maximum award of $3,750, up from $3,300.
And the Head Start program for preschoolers, which is run by the Department Health and Human Services, will see a budget increase of nearly $1 billion, for a total of $6.2 billion. President-elect Bush proposed during his campaign to move that program to the Education Department and to seek to increase its emphasis on early learning.
Filters and 'Earmarks'
Under a new policy mandate contained in the budget legislation, schools and libraries will be required to implement Internet filtering technology for computers as a condition of participating in the federal E-rate program or receiving certain federal technology funds. The spending agreement also will reauthorize the federal Even Start program, a family-literacy initiative championed by Mr. Goodling that was originally destined for inclusion in the ESEA bill. Even Start funding climbed by $100 million, for a total of $250 million, under the agreement.
In addition, the budget contains a measure allowing small, rural districts to combine money from a variety of federal education programs, another to help schools expand and improve physical education programs, and a third to promote the study of American history in elementary and secondary schools.
Mr. Packer of the NEA said he would prefer that such policy changes were not made during last-minute appropriations negotiations.
"It's definitely not the best way to make policy," he said, noting that such decisions often end up being made behind closed doors rather than through formal committee hearings and amendments on the floor. "But sometimes it becomes the only process."
Continuing a growing trend in the Education Department budget, the spending agreement also includes a host of spending "earmarks"—totaling at least $350 million—for specific local and state initiatives, a practice critics label pork-barrel spending. Such money is awarded without going through the traditional channels: the formula-based and competitive programs that make up most of the department's budget.
For example, about $21 million of the money budgeted for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program is earmarked for 58 recipients, including $553,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Danville, Ill., for "youth programs"; $350,000 to the Cranston, R.I., school district to improve after-school programs; and $1.1 million to the state of Alaska for an after-school initiative.
Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 33