Democrats Dispute Bush's Budget Figures
President Bush will propose raising the Department of Education's budget for the next fiscal year by more than 11 percent, the White House announced last week. But Democrats say the actual percentage increase under that proposal could be much less.
Administration officials indicated that Mr. Bush would seek to raise the department's fiscal 2002 budget by $4.6 billion, for a total of $44.5 billion, in the budget plan he is scheduled to release this week.
"In the budget I submit, the largest increase of any department will be for the Department of Education," President Bush said Feb. 21 during a visit to Townsend Elementary School in Townsend, Tenn. "I think it's so important for us to prioritize education."
The trouble is, some Democrats argue, the White House is using misleading numbers.
"This is not an 11 percent increase by any ordinary yardstick," Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said in a statement.
Democrats and some education lobbyists note that the White House is using a level known as the "budget authority" to make its comparisons. That level excludes about $2 billion in additional funds the Education Department will actually spend this year.
"It's not a fair or meaningful comparison," said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.
Mr. Packer estimated that if the president's actual spending total for the department in fiscal 2002 was $44.5 billion, the increase would be about $2.4 billion, or 6 percent, over the current fiscal year's actual spending total of $42.1 billion.
Asked about the matter, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The president proposed an 11 percent increase over what was enacted in fiscal 2001."
The dispute arose late last week, after President Bush revealed a few tidbits from the budget blueprint he was expected to unveil Feb. 28. Besides disclosing the overall figures for the Education Department, Mr. Bush said he would seek an additional $1.6 billion for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is currently funded at about $18.5 billion.
A more detailed, program-by-program budget won't be ready until April.
Mr. McClellan said the White House would seek to raise the Education Department's budget authority from $39.9 billion in fiscal 2001, the current budget year, to $44.5 billion in the fiscal year that begins next Oct. 1.
But that baseline does not reflect what the department will actually spend in discretionary dollars this year: $42.1 billion.
The reason is a budget gimmick called "advanced funding" that Congress created several years ago to get around strict budget caps set in 1997. For accounting purposes, advanced funding cannot be spent until after the start of the next fiscal year, and therefore does not technically count under the budget caps. The budget authority figure of $39.9 billion for fiscal 2001 does not include roughly $2.2 billion in advanced funding.
"Education stuff always gets triply confusing" because of the advanced funding, Mr. Packer of the NEA said.
Whatever the percentage increase in the president's plan, some Democrats weren't impressed.
"The inadequacy of the administration's proposed education budget raises very serious questions about whether the president can achieve the level of reforms the system needs and that he says he supports," said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Mr. Miller and other committee Democrats recently unveiled their own education proposal, which calls for $110 billion in additional spending for the Education Department over the next five years, with some of the biggest increases for programs under the ESEA.
But Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the education committee, said he applauds the president's commitment to both more spending and greater accountability. "I enthusiastically support this approach, and I believe the majority of members of the Congress will as well," he said.
President Bush's announcement of his planned spending increase came a month after he offered a plan to overhaul the federal role in K-12 education, most of it wrapped into the ESEA. ("Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role," Jan. 31, 2001.) The Senate is expected to take up its version of the ESEA reauthorization next month. Lawmakers failed to complete work on it last year.
Just recently, Senate Democrats lamented that they had not yet received any details from the president about his budget plan, especially with the Senate preparing to take legislative action. It was unclear last week exactly how much detail, if any, President Bush would provide this week on various programs. ("Bush Plan Could Alter Bilingual Education," Feb. 21, 2001.)
The $1.6 billion figure Mr. Bush cited for increases in ESEA programs makes clear the president's intention to spend more on K-12 schools, though observers wonder where he would place most of the money.
Last week, Mr. Bush indicated that a significant chunk would go toward his proposed initiative to improve students' reading skills in grades K-2. In the current fiscal year, nearly $300 million is set aside for the Reading Excellence Act. The president said last week that he plans to fold that funding into his new reading program, which would receive $900 million in fiscal 2002 and $5 billion over five years.
More Funding Sought
Meanwhile, the Committee for Education Funding, a broad-based coalition of school and higher education groups that lobbies for higher federal spending on education, is calling for a much bigger commitment than the Bush administration plans.
The coalition wants the federal government to pour $70 billion of additional money into the Education Department budget over the next five years. In essence, the CEF wants 5 cents of every federal tax dollar to be spent on education, more than twice the estimated 2 cents currently appropriated for that purpose.
"As education needs and expectations grow, we must invest substantially more resources," argued Carolyn Henrich, the CEF's president and a lobbyist for the National PTA. "With five cents on the dollar, we could mount a much-needed national commitment to education."
Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the CEF, estimates that to get started toward that goal, the budget for fiscal 2002 would need to provide additional funding for the department of about $12 billion.
To help make the case for its large spending proposal, the CEF commissioned a public-opinion poll that showed 80 percent of citizens responding supported increasing education funding to 5 percent of the federal budget within five years.
"There is a message here," Mr. Kealy said. "We think it is realistic for Congress and the president to pay attention to what the American public's priorities are."
Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack contributed to this story.
Vol. 20, Issue 24, Pages 21,23