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Published in Print: February 11, 2004, as Education Gains in Bush Budget Proposal

Education Gains in Bush Budget Proposal

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The Department of Education budget request announced by President Bush last week is surely the envy of most members of his Cabinet, even while critics lambasted it as inadequate to meet the nation's educational needs.

See Also...

View the accompanying table "Bush Budget on Education," and read the accompanying story "Budget Plans for Other Agencies Would Affect Children and Schools."

The proposed 3 percent increase—to $57.3 billion—would represent the smallest annual growth rate for the department in almost a decade.

But compared with other domestic agencies, the Education Department fared well. Some, such as the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, would actually see their budgets decline in the president's request for the 2005 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. Aside from national defense and homeland security, the White House says, federal discretionary spending would rise less than 1 percent in the request.

The Bush administration's plan would secure $1 billion increases each for the Education Department's two largest precollegiate programs: Title I and special education. It sprinkles in a few new programs, while seeking to eliminate 38 out of the agency's existing 186 programs, including arts education, dropout prevention, and the Even Start family-literacy program.

The request represents the largest dollar increase for any domestic agency, according to the Department of Education.

"President Bush places education spending at the top of the class," acting Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said at a Feb. 2 press briefing at the agency's Washington headquarters.

No doubt anticipating criticism, he and other department leaders also sought to place the budget proposal in still other contexts. They rolled out charts showing the substantial growth at the agency over the past few years—up 36 percent since fiscal 2001—and estimated that more than $500 billion will be spent overall on K-12 education in the United States this school year.

"This nation spends more money on education [per capita] than any other, with the possible exception of Switzerland," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said.

But such arguments did not quell the displeasure of Democrats with the proposal.

"President Bush had to choose between honoring his word to public schools, veterans, college students, and Americans looking for jobs, and giving billions more in tax cuts to the richest Americans," said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "His budget makes it clear that he chose to honor the richest Americans."

The president's proposed $2.4 trillion federal budget package, delivered to Congress on Feb. 2, calls for making permanent tax cuts enacted since President Bush was elected. It estimates a $521 billion deficit in fiscal 2005.

'Disappointing and Inadequate'

In his message to Congress accompanying the budget request, Mr. Bush identified as his three highest priorities fighting the war on terror, strengthening the nation's homeland defenses, and promoting economic growth and job creation.

"In addition," he said, "we will continue to strengthen the domestic institutions that best express our values, and serve the basic needs of all: good schools, quality and affordable health care, and programs that promote hope and compassion in our communities."

But the 3 percent increase proposed for the Education Department didn't sit well with many education groups in Washington, especially given the tough demands in the No Child Left Behind Act—the centerpiece of the president's education agenda.

"We think it's disappointing and inadequate," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group here that lobbies for more spending on education. "We're seeing a lessening [of the increases] at a time when the challenges are ramping up with No Child Left Behind."

A budget chart issued by the Education Department says overall spending for programs under the No Child Left Behind Act—the 2-year-old reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—would be $24.8 billion, an increase of about $642 million, or 2.7 percent, over the current year. That figure excludes several hundred-million dollars in one-time "earmarks" lawmakers attached to the federal budget in fiscal 2004.

Mr. Kealy noted that the $13.3 billion requested for the Title I program for disadvantaged students fell more than $7 billion short of the level authorized under federal law for this school year.

In the budget plan, Mr. Bush is asking Congress to back funding for several new programs, such as a $100 million "Striving Readers" initiative to help struggling middle and high schoolers, a $40 million "Adjunct Teacher Corps," and $10 million to help ease the education transitions for children from military families that frequently change duty stations.

With his fellow Republicans controlling the House and the Senate, Mr. Bush is likely to get a fairly sympathetic ear for his top priorities. But a leading House Republican on budget matters offered a cautionary note, given the government's fiscal constraints.

"We will be carefully scrutinizing the administration's new initiatives and proposed funding increases to see if we can afford them in a lean budget year," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "They will have to be reconciled with proven programs and traditional congressional priorities."

To make room for new programs and spending increases, President Bush once again has called for eliminating a slew of line items within the Education Department. He has identified 38 programs for termination that together represent $1.4 billion for the current fiscal year.

Based on past experience, Congress is all but certain to disregard most of the president's suggestions. This year's list had many of the usual suspects, as Mr. Bush again targeted such items as arts education, alcohol-abuse reduction, dropout prevention, school counseling, and foreign-language assistance.

But a department official noted last week that for fiscal 2004, Congress did zero out five programs targeted in the Bush administration's budget request a year ago.

Change of Heart

The administration apparently had a change of heart on certain programs. After seeking unsuccessfully to abolish the rural education program for two years running, this time Mr. Bush would level- fund it at $168 million.

And the president last year proposed cutting back federal after-school spending from $1 billion to $600 million. That proposed cut drew sharp criticism, and was rejected by Congress. A year later, the president has proposed to keep the program steady at about $1 billion.

Mr. Paige said that the requested cut last year was spurred by a department evaluation that revealed weaknesses in the after-school program.

"We had a summit here and we discussed it," he said. "We came up with a lot of different proposals and modifications that we think make the program much stronger now."

The proposed budget would keep funding for many line items exactly at their current levels, such as the $2.93 billion Improving Teacher Quality state grants.

Congress will surely reshuffle some of the numbers within the president's request. But some analysts question whether lawmakers will appropriate more money for the Education Department this time, as they have with past budget proposals from Mr. Bush.

"It is much less certain that that pattern will continue," said Thomas E. Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "Conservative Republicans are up in arms over deficits and spending; they are unlikely to be as accommodating to increased funding as in the past."

Vol. 23, Issue 22, Pages 18,20

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