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Published in Print: March 5, 2003, as Itemizing The Budget

Itemizing The Budget

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The teal-colored budget book handed out by Department of Education officials in early February holds a slew of numbers, enough to make anyone a little dizzy.

But the book—an annual gift to budget wonks and reporters that spells out the president's new spending request—also furnishes a fairly detailed rationale for the rows of figures, from the 11-digit line items to the big fat zeroes.

The heart of it begins on Page 2. There, the department reprises its refrain that simply spending more money won't improve student achievement. The Bush administration emphasizes investing in programs that show results in "improving educational outcomes" or that were "fundamentally reformed" by the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. It also stresses targeting aid to disadvantaged students.

The administration has even instituted a new tool to rate programs' effectiveness.

But despite the focus on results, to a large extent budget-making is inherently subjective—and political.

"Every president's budget is a political document," said Stanley E. Collender, a federal-budget expert at the consulting group Fleishman-Hillard in Washington. "It's a little bit of a wish list. It's a little bit of wishful thinking. And it's a lot of politics."

'Delete' Button

The biggest entries in President Bush's fiscal 2004 education request, and the largest dollar increases, are reserved for three programs: Title I and Pell Grants, which both focus on disadvantaged students, and special education. Together, they constitute about two-thirds of the president's $53.1 billion discretionary request for the Education Department.

"No other domestic agency has three programs receiving such monumental increases," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said Feb. 3 when comparing the new budget plan with the president's request last year. The proposed increases in those programs were somewhat foreshortened from Mr. Paige's comparison when Congress passed the final fiscal 2003 budget and the president signed it into law last month, but are still substantial by any measure.

Title I and special education would rise by more than $650 million each, and Pell Grants by roughly $1.35 billion.

Of course, the growth areas come at a price in a budget request that would essentially flatline discretionary spending for the Education Department. Something—or things—had to give.

One way Mr. Bush hopes to save money is by pressing the "delete" button on 45 programs. ("On the Block," this issue.) He also wants to pare back a few big-ticket items, such as vocational education and after-school programs.

Congressional Democrats argue that a big problem with the president's plan is that he isn't requesting enough cash, especially given the new federal demands imposed through the No Child Left Behind Act. Some find that especially distressing because Mr. Bush likewise proposed new tax cuts.

They also dispute some of his priorities within the budget.

Perhaps the most political angst comes from Mr. Bush's renewed support for private school choice.

He proposed $75 million for a new "choice incentive" fund for both public and private school choice. He also is advocating a refundable income-tax credit that would offset up to $2,500 in tuition or related expenses for public and private schooling. That initiative, aimed at students in low-performing public schools, would cost an estimated $226 million. It would be administered by the Department of the Treasury.

"Once again, the Bush administration has proved that maintaining its commitment to the conservative Republican agenda is more important than keeping its promise to American children," said Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Congress' Turn

The next step in this year's budget process—now that the president has submitted his budget request to Congress—is for the House and Senate to adopt a budget resolution, which will guide tax and spending bills.

Mr. Bush also will encounter stiff resistance to scaling back or eliminating programs, opposition likely to be heavily bipartisan.

After all, this isn't the first time Mr. Bush has targeted programs for termination. He put forward a similar list last year, and Congress all but ignored it. Congress ultimately exceeded his fiscal 2003 budget request for the Education Department by $2.8 billion, for a total of $53.1 billion.

Some experts say that proposing to zero out programs gives the president a handy way to show he's paying for his priorities while keeping the overall total down.

"He shouldn't expect any more success this round, but it's worth the bother because it gives him room to increase other, popular programs," said Thomas E. Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

But William D. Hansen, the deputy secretary of education, insists this is no numbers game. He says the administration made a genuine effort to set priorities.

"Why in the world would we want to alienate 45 constituencies?" Mr. Hansen said. "This is tough budget policy. ... We hope Congress will take a long and hard look at each of these [proposed eliminations]."

The agency's budget provides a rationale for each program in its cross hairs. The most common explanation is that larger, more flexible programs can support the same efforts. Some programs are "duplicative," the document says, or have achieved their original purpose. Another rationale: to eliminate "small categorical" programs with "limited impact."

The biggest program that would get the heave-ho is the $233 million Comprehensive School Reform program, which provides grants for schools in low- income areas to enact what are known as whole-school reform models. Last year, Mr. Bush wanted to keep it. But the administration now says it "largely duplicates" activities carried out under Title I.

Some other programs eyed for termination are more modest in size, such as the $34 million Arts in Education program and—among the smallest—the $994,000 B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarships.

Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, likened the president's approach to that of a butcher, rather than a surgeon.

"There's a lot of things in there that strike me as sort of meat-cleaver, as opposed to scalpel, policymaking," said Mr. Rotherham, who was an education adviser to President Clinton.

He noted, for one, Mr. Bush's plans to shut down the regional educational laboratories, now funded at about $67 million. The department's budget book says the labs "have not consistently provided high-quality research."

"If you're concerned about the performance of the labs," Mr. Rotherham said, "the solution isn't just to eliminate them."

On the flip side, some see a hint of philosophical inconsistency in the small programs that escaped the hit list. For example, Mr. Bush proposed $25 million for character education and $27.5 million for school libraries. (First lady Laura Bush is a former school librarian.)

Strengths and Weaknesses

While Congress is loath to end programs, even some advocates for higher spending suggest there may be too many.

"Recognizing that it isn't enough [money], the priorities that were placed in the president's budget are fairly accurate ... being Title I and [special education]," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools. "I believe those should be the highest priority."

"I probably wouldn't mind seeing some programs eliminated," Mr. Simering said.

The Bush administration cited a new instrument this year that it says was used to help set budget priorities: the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART.

The analyses took place governmentwide to gauge strengths and weaknesses of federal programs, with an emphasis on results. While still being refined, PART was administered to 20 percent of programs this year, including 18 from the Education Department.

Of the 18 programs, 10 were rated as "results not demonstrated," meaning the administration found insufficient data or measures to gauge performance.

Four others were rated "ineffective": the Even Start family-literacy program, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities state- grants program, vocational education state grants, and Trio Upward Bound, which is aimed at boosting the college enrollment of needy high school students.

Honors for the highest rating at the department went to the $11.4 billion Pell Grants program, labeled "moderately effective."

"It makes no sense to us to fund ... programs that aren't effective," Deputy Secretary Hansen said.

The budget book says PART findings were used "to redirect funds from ineffective programs to more effective activities, as well as to identify reforms to help address program weaknesses."

And yet, the president's request in some respects appeared at odds with the ratings.

For example, Mr. Bush wants to ax the Comprehensive School Reform program even though it received an "adequate" rating. By contrast, none of the four programs rated "ineffective" was targeted to be zeroed out, though the president asked for somewhat less money for three of them.

Also, one of Mr. Bush's top budget priorities—special education state grants—could not demonstrate results.

Some critics call PART a pretty blunt instrument.

But Harry P. Hatry, the director of the public-management program at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, said the administration appears to be making a genuine effort to evaluate programs. He serves on an advisory panel for the PART initiative.

"All of this is pretty groundbreaking," he said. Mr. Hatry argues that it's important to examine outcomes for programs, and that spending decisions ought to be more closely tied to such information. That said, he did caution about how far PART can go.

"The term 'effective' is probably pushing the word a little bit," he said. "It's almost impossible to extract in many of these programs ... the effect of the federal expenditures."

Ultimately, while Mr. Hatry is enthusiastic about adding information to the budget-making process, he holds no illusions that this will suddenly transform spending decisions in Washington.

"Political purpose," he said, "is all over the place."

Vol. 22, Issue 25, Pages 1,32-33

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