Bush Budget Would Boost NCLB Efforts
Key Democrats say plan for 2008 is not enough.
President Bush’s fiscal 2008 budget request aims to help advance his agenda for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act this year. But key congressional Democrats, who also want to maintain the law’s accountability principles, said the proposed spending plan for education falls far short of what schools need to get on track to meet the measure’s ambitious achievement goals.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairmen, respectively, of the House and Senate education committees, said the inclusion of a long-sought hike for Title I grants to school districts and new money to improve struggling schools in the administration’s $56 billion spending plan for the U.S. Department of Education won’t make up for two years of stagnant federal spending on school programs.
Both noted that the president’s plan, unveiled Feb. 5, would shortchange the department’s overall discretionary budget by 2.6 percent compared with the $57.5 billion set for the department in a fiscal 2007 spending bill approved by the House on Jan. 31. The Senate is set to vote on a similar measure as early as this week. Among the most significant cuts in Mr. Bush’s plan is less money for students in special education.
“I am particularly concerned that the president has once again proposed inadequate funding for the law’s important reforms,” Sen. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a Feb. 5 statement, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act. “He used the same old tactics of robbing other education priorities to pay for his modest increases for school reform. Our schools and children deserve more than accounting gimmicks—they need new resources to make progress.”
This budget cycle presents a somewhat unusual situation in which lawmakers are still hammering out a spending measure to fund the Education Department and most other federal agencies for fiscal 2007, which began Oct. 1, at the same time the president is introducing his fiscal 2008 budget.
Although the measure approved by the House last month would extend funding for most of the federal government at fiscal 2006 levels, lawmakers bolstered appropriations for some key education programs, including Title I grants to districts and spending for students in special education authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The administration’s spending plan illustrates President Bush’s priorities for reauthorization of the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, slated for this year. It would provide new money to help low-income students in foundering public schools attend private schools and extra Title I dollars for retooling high schools. ("Bush Plan Would Heighten NCLB Focus on High School," Feb. 7, 2007.)
“We believe [that] with the need to ratchet up levels of rigor and make sure that more than half of our minority students graduate from high school on time that the share of the Title I pie for our high schools ought to be increased,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a conference call with reporters Feb. 5.
Special Education Cut
But to make room in the budget for the high school program and other initiatives, the administration is proposing cuts in other programs, including special education. The budget request seeks $10.49 billion for special education programs under the IDEA. That is about $290 million less than the $10.8 billion for special education approved in the House spending measure, or a 2.8 percent cut.
That’s significant for school districts struggling to keep pace with rising special education enrollment, said Steven P. Crawford, the superintendent of the 1,700-student Byng school district in Ada, Okla.
Mr. Crawford said that since the extra money for Title I would be directed to new student assessments in high schools, it wouldn’t go far in helping his district meet the achievement targets set under the No Child Left Behind law.
“It’s ‘we’ll give you more money, but we’ll tell you how to spend it,’ ” he said. “Money for new expenditure areas is not money that’s going to help us reach the goals of NCLB.”
Rep. Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, also decried the proposed cuts to special education, as well as a proposed level-funding of the federal Head Start preschool program.
“The cuts in this budget for students with disabilities and for young children are reprehensible and undermine the efforts of students and teachers who are working hard in classrooms across the country,” he said in a statement.
The Bush administration proposes $500 million in new money to help schools deemed in need of improvement under the federal school law. The fund, which was authorized under NCLB but has never been financed by Congress, would help schools cover the costs of implementing improvement plans, providing professional development for teachers, or tutoring. The House included $125 million for the fund in its fiscal 2007 spending bill approved last month.
The budget also proposes a new—and highly controversial—$250 million “Promise” scholarship program that would allow poor students in struggling schools to attend private schools using federal money. In addition, the spending request includes $50 million in new aid to establish a competitive grant program to help districts establish their own school choice programs.
Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy, have criticized those proposals as a federal voucher program. Most Democrats and their political allies, most notably the national teachers’ unions, oppose such use of public funds to pay private school tuition for K-12 students.
“It’s clearly a nonstarter with this Congress,” in which the Democrats control both houses, said Joel Packer, the chief NCLB lobbyist for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.
Teacher Incentive Fund
Mr. Bush’s budget would also increase funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to districts to create pay-for-performance and teacher improvement programs, to $199 million, from $99 million in fiscal 2006. The proposed increase would keep the fund afloat, despite the House’s fiscal 2007 plan, which would slash its funding to $200,000.
Congressional Democrats say that move wasn’t an effort to eliminate the fund, which has drawn criticism from both national teachers’ unions. The Democrats say they didn’t increase spending for the Teacher Incentive Fund in the fiscal 2007 bill because the fund still has $43 million in leftover appropriations from fiscal 2006 to dole out for new grants. A Senate budget aide said he expects congressional Democrats to provide funding for the program for fiscal 2008, possibly by as much as the president proposed.
Meanwhile, Secretary Spellings is urging the Senate to restore the $99 million for the program when it votes on the fiscal 2007 spending bill, likely this week. If the fund doesn’t receive new appropriations in fiscal year 2007, it might be tough for the department to continue to finance current grants in a timely manner, she said.
As announced by Secretary Spellings last month, the Bush administration’s budget also proposes increasing the maximum Pell Grant for the first time in four years, from $4,050 to $4,600 in fiscal 2008. The measure approved by the House last month would raise the Pell Grant maximum to $4,310 for the 2007-08 school year. Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students pay for college.
President Bush’s budget would also bolster Academic Competitiveness Grants, which provide extra money to Pell-eligible students who take a rigorous high school curriculum. The request would raise the grants from $750 to $1,125 for first-year students, and from $1,300 to $1,950 for second-year students. Those increases would be paid for, in part, by cutting federal subsidies to private student lenders.
44 Programs Targeted
Some advocates for increased math and science spending were pleased to see that the Bush administration has repeated its calls for funding its American Competitiveness Initiative, a series of proposals for spending on those subjects. The plan stalled last year but re-emerged in the new budget.
Those proposals include Math Now, an effort to improve math instruction in elementary and middle schools that got $250 million in the fiscal 2008 request, and $122 million to support competitive grants to expand Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in math, science, and foreign languages, an increase from $32 million in fiscal 2006.
“We’re glad the administration is keeping money on the table. They’ve been true to what they had outlined” a year ago, said Glenn S. Ruskin, the director of legislative and government affairs for the American Chemical Society, a Washington-based organization which advocates on behalf of science education. “Did they lose interest in this? No, not in the least bit. I think that bodes well.”
As in past years, the administration proposes to pay for some of its spending increases by cutting a host of other education programs. This year 44 are slated for the chopping block. Some of those programs are popular in Congress, such as the $273 million Educational Technology state grants, which help districts buy computers and train teachers. The president proposed eliminating the fund last year, but the fiscal 2007 measure that passed the House last month would restore its funding.
Other programs escaped targeting for outright elimination, but were still identified for drastic reductions. Vocational education programs financed under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, nearly all of it state grants, would be cut in half, from more than $1.3 billion to a little more than $610 million, under the president’s request.
Last year, Mr. Bush proposed zero funding for the program, but Congress appears poised to restore that money in the fiscal year 2007 bill.
Still, the administration took some perennial targets off the table, including the $303.4 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, which helps prepare disadvantaged students for college. The administration had proposed eliminating the program last year, but Congress appears likely to restore funding.
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