Published Online: January 4, 2008
Published in Print: January 9, 2008, as Bush Scores Modest Victory on Ed. Budget

Bush Scores Modest Victory on Ed. Budget

Democrats still get way in key areas; Reading First takes a major hit.

School districts will see a boost in funding for disadvantaged students but a dramatic cut to the controversial Reading First program under the spending plan approved for fiscal year 2008. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

The measure, signed by President Bush after a protracted budget battle with Democrats in Congress, appropriates $59.2 billion for U.S. Department of Education programs in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, a 2.9 percent increase over fiscal 2007. Democrats largely gave in to a hard-line White House stance that earlier measures were too out of line with the president’s budget proposal.

Education lobbyists were generally disappointed with the final measure, including Congress’ decision to retain earmarks, or small projects requested by individual lawmakers, across the federal budget, at the expense of boosting spending for education programs. Lawmakers eliminated most earmarks in fiscal year 2007 to make room for increases to the Title I program for disadvantaged students and other Education Department programs.

“It’s not as good as we had hoped,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. “We have not gotten to the point in Congress where they’re investing in the future.”

However, the legislation generally favors Democratic spending priorities, such as funding for disadvantaged students, over the administration’s pet projects, such as a federal investment in expanding public and private school choice.

The Senate gave final approval to the bill Dec. 18 by a vote of 76-17; the House approved it the next day, 272-142. President Bush signed the bill Dec. 26.

In November, President Bush vetoed Congress’ first attempt at financing programs under the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor. The bill would have provided $60.7 billion for the Education Department, a 5.6 percent increase over fiscal 2007, and 8.3 percent more than Mr. Bush proposed.

The tussle over federal spending shows that neither the White House nor Congress dominates the debate over federal spending bills—and perhaps, by extension, other major legislation, such as the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.

He said he expects that dynamic could lead to a similar spending showdown this year, and that controversial legislation, such as the renewal of the NCLB law, will likely remain stalled.

“Not much is going to get done [in 2008] because the political powers are checking one another,” said Mr. Jennings, who worked as an education aide to House Democrats for nearly three decades.

Minor Increases

The measure will provide $13.9 billion for Title I, an 8.6 percent increase over fiscal 2007. But the amount is about 2 percent less than what was proposed for the program in the vetoed legislation.

By contrast, the Reading First program was cut significantly under the final legislation, dropping from $1 billion last year to $393 million in fiscal 2008. That is slightly more severe than the $400 million proposed for the program in the vetoed spending bill.

Reading First, aimed at grades K-3, is one of President Bush’s highest priorities under the NCLB law, which also covers Title I and many other federal K-12 programs. But the reading program has paid a price on Capitol Hill for a series of highly critical reports over the past 16 months by the Education Department’s inspector general Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader that found favoritism for certain textbook publishers and other management problems in the program’s early years.

For K-12 education, most of the total appropriation will finance programs in the 2008-09 school year. In addition to the major increase for Title I and the cut to Reading First, the bill appropriates $10.9 billion for K-12 state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, about a 1 percent increase over the fiscal 2007 level. It will also boost state teacher-quality grants to $2.93 billion, a 1.7 percent increase. Aid for career and vocational education programs was reduced 0.5 percent, to $1.2 billion.

Rural Schools

Lawmakers declined to fund any new programs President Bush had proposed in his budget request, including the $250 million Promise Scholarships, which would have allowed poor students in struggling schools to use federal funds to attend private schools, and the $50 million Opportunity Scholarship program, which would have helped districts expand public and private school choice.

Congress also did not fund Math Now, a Bush administration priority authorized under the America Competes Act, passed earlier in 2007, aimed at helping school districts improve their mathematics curricula and instruction.

And, in a move that dismayed both public and private school advocates, lawmakers scrapped the $99 million Title V program, which helps districts pay for innovative programs in public and private schools. President Bush identified the program for elimination in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal.

Education Spending Highlights

After a drawn-out battle, President Bush and Congress came to agreement late last month on federal spending for the 2008 fiscal year, including for education.

“The beauty of [the program] is that every administrator decides where the funds can best be used in that particular school,” including administrators at private schools, said Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, based in Germantown, Md.

Title V dollars flow directly to public school districts, which use the money to buy materials used at both public and private schools, such as science-lab equipment and library books. About 11 percent of Title V aid benefited private schools, about the overall proportion of private school students in the nation, according to CAPE.

Meanwhile, Congress did not pass a measure that would have extended the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which expired Dec. 31. The program helps schools make up for timber revenues that have diminished because of the establishment of national forests affecting district lands. ("Rural Districts Fear Loss of Timber Revenue," Feb. 28, 2007.) The Department of Agriculture handed out about $389 million under the provision of the law that finances schools and roads in fiscal 2007.

More than 4,000 school districts receive some of the money, and some are heavily dependent on it. Ms. Kusler of the AASA said advocates for the program will be working with lawmakers to pass a reauthorization or extension early this year that includes retroactive funding.

But some districts are already anticipating staff layoffs and other drastic cuts, including California’s 500-student Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified school district near Lake Tahoe, which depends on the program for about 20 percent of the revenue in its $7 million annual budget.

“We don’t know if we can even bleed that much,” Superintendent Mary Genasci said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to survive.”

Vol. 27, Issue 17, Pages 17-18

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