Budget Panel Receives Spellings With Skepticism
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings came to Capitol Hill last week to deliver her sales pitch for President Bush’s plans to rearrange—and slightly shrink—the Department of Education’s budget, but she received a fairly skeptical reception from key senators on both sides of the aisle.
“I’m very much concerned about the fact that the budget has a reduction of … almost 1 percent, and that is in the face of the inevitable problem of inflation,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Ms. Spellings during a March 2 hearing on Mr. Bush’s fiscal 2006 request for education. Mr. Specter chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which held the hearing.
The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, noted that the request would cut federal education aid for the first time in a decade.
“I just, first of all, think that we need to put some more into the budget for education,” he said. “It seems like we’re again asking for more reforms without really [providing] the resources,” Mr. Harkin added in a reference to the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
President Bush is requesting $56 billion in discretionary money for the Education Department in fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. That represents a cut of $530 million, or nearly 1 percent, from the current budget. He has proposed axing 48 of the agency’s programs, while establishing some new ones, with a special emphasis on high schools. ("Bush’s High School Plan Off to Rocky Start," Feb. 16, 2005.)
In addition, Mr. Bush would increase spending for some programs and scale it back for others. For instance, the Title I program for disadvantaged students would grow by $603 million, or 5 percent, but State Grants for Innovative Programs—a block grant—would drop by about half, to $100 million.
In her opening remarks at last week’s hearing, Secretary Spellings stressed the need to rein in federal spending.
“The president’s budget accomplishes several important goals,” she said. “The first is fiscal discipline. In his February 2 State of the Union address, the president underscored the need to restrain spending in order to sustain our economic growth and prosperity.”
The 48 education programs in the president’s crosshairs have plenty of friends on Capitol Hill, and if history is any indication, most, if not all, will remain. Mr. Bush has targeted many of the same programs in previous years.
“This subcommittee is going to need to have the specifics on why we have eliminated 48 programs,” Sen. Specter said. “Every one of these programs has a sponsor.”
One program tapped for elimination, the $20 million National Writing Project, has among its allies an influential member on budget matters: Sen. Thad Cochran. The Mississippi Republican is the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he made clear at the hearing that he wasn’t happy with the notion of saying farewell to the program, which supports efforts to improve writing instruction in schools.
“I hope we can get the administration’s support of continuing programs of that kind,” Mr. Cochran said.
Give and Take
One of Mr. Bush’s top priorities is to expand the testing and accountability demands of the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act at the high school level. He wants to set up a new, $1.2 billion High School Intervention fund, which states and districts could use to help low-performing schools. The president also is requesting $250 million to help states devise the new tests, which Ms. Spellings said would likely be required by the 2009-10 school year.
President Bush has indicated that the new high school money would come largely from abolishing the department’s current vocational and technical education programs.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., made clear at the hearing that he wasn’t keen on that approach. Mr. Kohl said he was especially concerned that community colleges, which also benefit from the vocational programs, would lose out in the budget reshuffling.
Secretary Spellings said that would not be the case when all funds, including a proposed $250 million community college initiative in the Department of Labor, were taken into account.
“By our math, the funding for vocational education for high schools and for community colleges is about the same [under the Bush request],” she said.
But Sen. Kohl remained skeptical. “There is clearly a net minus here that we’re talking about,” he countered.
A Question of Timing
Although Sen. Harkin said he did not object outright to President Bush’s plans for expanding testing and accountability in high schools, he expressed reservations about the timing.
“We have to make the system work in grade school first before we go to high schools,” he said. “It just seems that it’s not the right time to do it.”
But Secretary Spellings disagreed, saying that the administration wants to “attend to and stay the course on the No Child Left Behind Act,” while also focusing extra attention on high schools.
“I think there is some urgency in high school,” she said. “We need to be able to walk and chew gum, as we would say in Texas.”
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