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Published in Print: February 13, 2002, as Bush Budget: Modest Growth, Fewer Programs

Bush Budget: Modest Growth, Fewer Programs

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The Department of Education's boom days may be coming to an end, if President Bush has his way.

The budget proposal for fiscal 2003 that Mr. Bush submitted to Congress last week seeks to curb the record growth seen at the agency over the past two years. It would secure sizable increases for top White House priorities, such as special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students, while freezing or cutting a host of other programs.

Critics were quick to voice disappointment at numbers they argue fall far short of the promises—and the demands—in the "No Child Left Behind" Act Mr. Bush signed in Hamilton, Ohio, last month.

But those budget figures are likely to rise, and some eliminated programs return, by the time Congress gets done with the final spending legislation deep into this year. The education budget increase for fiscal 2002 that Mr. Bush signed in January was nearly three times what he requested almost a year ago.

"The increases in our budget will not be of the magnitude of the defense, homeland security, and economic-recovery increases," said William D. Hansen, the Education Department's deputy secretary, "but they will build upon the series of major increases that have led to more than a doubling in this agency's discretionary budget since 1996."

Overall, under the president's plan, the department would see $50.3 billion in discretionary spending in the fiscal year that begins next Oct. 1—an increase of $1.4 billion, or 2.8 percent. That compares with an increase of $6.7 billion, nearly 16 percent, for the current fiscal year.

The new figures are part of a $2.13 trillion federal budget plan that strongly reflects the post-Sept. 11 priorities of national defense and security.

The day after the White House released its numbers, a leading senator who will have a lot to say about the education budget in the coming months made clear his dissatisfaction.

"I think the people of America have to understand, we passed this big education bill, and now the president just sort of kicked the supports right out from underneath it by not funding it," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with Education Department funding. "My worst fears have come true, that the president has put all these new requirements on states and local school districts, but has given them no money with which to do it."

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republican Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, disputed that view.

"The president's education budget is a responsible proposal," Mr. Schnittger said, emphasizing the tremendous spending growth in the past few years, and the proposed billion-dollar increases for Title I and special education.

"It reinforces the approach taken in [the new education law]," he said, "in that resources are targeted to programs that support disadvantaged students and schools."

Small Programs Are Targets

Department officials said during their Feb. 4 budget briefing that they had identified 40 education programs for elimination, including $10 million for dropout prevention, $30 million for arts education, and $50 million for physical education.

"I think any time you're looking at a small, categorical program with $10 million, or $11.2 million ... . I think they have a very difficult time proving themselves to be really a program of national significance," Mr. Hansen said.

But Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association, predicts that the department's efforts to zero out programs are unlikely to succeed.

"Almost all the programs on the list are bipartisan," he said. "Many are championed by Republicans. They were not accidentally funded."

While Democrats were skeptical of the budget plan, they found some encouraging signs. For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was pleased to see Mr. Bush request that the $1 billion in new Title I aid go to the targeted-grants formula, which seeks to better concentrate the money on districts serving large proportions of poor children. That formula was funded for the first time in the budget for the current fiscal year.

"This president has been very, very good on the targeting aspects of the bill, and deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that," Sen. Landrieu said.

If last year is any indication, the final spending increase could be considerably huskier than the relatively slim specimen President Bush put forward. His $44.5 billion request for discretionary spending last year ultimately grew by $4.4 billion, to a total of $48.9 billion.

Many of the programs that Mr. Bush wanted to eliminate last year were restored.

The overall shape of the proposed federal budget is remarkably different from its appearance a year ago, when most policymakers and analysts predicted large non-Social Security surpluses for years to come. But that has all changed with the downturn in the economy, the tax cuts last year, and much larger expenditures for military and homeland- security measures in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against the United States.

Deficit Spending Returns

Analysts say the new fiscal climate does not necessarily mean Congress will restrain federal spending, since President Bush has proposed a budget that would require a deficit to make the numbers work. In addition, the budget caps and pay-as-you-go rule for tax cuts and entitlement spending, last renewed in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, have expired.

"All restraints are off now," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Congress has every incentive to increase programs that it likes and are popular, so I expect those numbers to grow."

One of the most notable new education proposals put forward by Mr. Bush last week is not actually in the Department of Education budget. He has proposed providing refundable tax credits aimed at families with children in failing schools.

That proposal, which the administration estimates would cost the government about $3.7 billion over five years, has encountered stiff criticism from many Democrats. They call it another form of school vouchers, since private school tuition would be an allowable expense. In fact, the White House estimates that the bulk of the costs would not be in lost revenue, but in federal checks to low-income families that owed no taxes.

One of Mr. Bush's budgetary items that was especially surprising to some observers was his proposal for the nascent teacher-quality program. It would receive $2.85 billion, the same as last year.

The new federal education law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would require all public schools to have "highly qualified" teachers in place by 2005-06. That is widely viewed as one of the law's most ambitious demands.

Mr. Hansen, the deputy secretary of education, explained that funding for teacher quality rose substantially in the fiscal 2002 budget.

"Some of these programs," he said, "we feel like we've just got to get them implemented this year and take a little bit of a pause."

Other major programs, such as the $1 billion after- school initiative and the $665 million English-language-acquisition program would also be flatlined.

Seeking to strengthen the case for a larger overall budget increase, the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group for more than 100 organizations that lobbies for federal education aid, released the results of a nationwide poll last week.

Sixty-seven percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed said they would accept a larger federal deficit in order to provide more spending on education. The only category that received more support was more money for the war on terrorism.

Vol. 21, Issue 22, Pages 30,32-33

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