Federal File: Showing a new attitude; Wish lists presented

March 21, 1990 4 min read

For the past several years, the annual budget briefing staged by the Education Department’s research branch was dominated by complaints from the former assistant secretary, Chester E. Finn Jr., that the large portion of the research budget consumed by laboratories and centers left little for individual researchers and discretionary projects.

Mr. Finn also complained about the Congress’s refusal to substantially increase his agency’s budget.

This year’s briefing, in contrast, was a virtually apolitical rundown of the projects planned by the office of educational research and improvement.

Among them is an upcoming competition for new centers, which the agency has expanded far beyond Congressional mandates.

The current assistant secretary, Christopher T. Cross, affirmed later that his attitude toward the labs and centers differs from Mr. Finn’s.

“There does not have to be an adversarial relationship,” he said, adding that he does not think the centers curtail his ability to direct the research agenda.

House and Senate panels have begun sending their colleagues on the budget committees recommendations for fiscal 1991. As usual, Democrats and Republicans have suggested additions to the Bush Administration’s requests.

Democrats on the Education and Labor Committee, for example, said Mr. Bush’s plan “lacks the vision to confront the challenges that face us.” They asked for larger increases for Head Start, student aid, and vocational, compensatory, bilingual, and adult education.

The panel’s Republicans were more specific, recommending $4 billion more for education and training programs than the amount sought by Mr. Bush, including an extra $56 million for special education, $33.2 million for vocational education, $113 million for Head Start, and $200 million for Pell Grants.

Although they disagreed with some proposed cuts, they recommended slashing a proposed $79-million increase for research by two-thirds.

The special-education request represents a commitment to work toward paying 40 percent of the cost of educating handicapped children--as the Congress promised when it mandated such services in 1975.

Representative Peter P. Smith of Vermont claims credit for the statement, which calls for a $500-million increase in 1991 and a total increase of $1 billion over three years.

He said he and Representative Steve Bartlett of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Select Education Subcommittee, will press for hearings on the issue.

“It’s the one program we can fund at the federal level that will have a direct impact on the local financing of education,” Mr. Smith said, adding: “I ran on this issue, frankly.”

Senate education committees had not finished their recommendations as of late last week. But the Select Committee on Indian Affairs asked for a $49.2-million increase for Indian education, $48.8 million more than Mr. Bush wants.

They also asked for a $92-million hike in impact aid, noting that schools with many Indian students “depend heavily” on such money. This is $80 million more than requested by the Administration.

The recommendation enjoyed bipartisan support. In addition, the panel’s ranking Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, sharply criticized Mr. Bush’s plan for Indian programs.

The committee also discussed the idea of “forward funding” for Indian-education programs, a concept endorsed by Democrats on the Education and Labor panel. Most education programs are forward funded, which means that money earmarked in a particular year is actually spent in later years. The method gives extra planning time to schools.

These recommendations are “usually the high-water mark,” said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

“If the budget committees want to, they can use them as a reason to do what they’re doing, but if they don’t want to do that, they won’t,’' she said.

However, Ms. Frost added, “they are the advocates for the programs they’ve authorized, and we certainly wouldn’t want conservative estimates out.”

In its bipartisan report to the Budget Committee, the House Appropriations Committee expressed distaste for the budget process--particularly the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law and its automatic across-the-board cuts.

The committee slammed other panels for failing to make their share of cuts by altering programs, and lambasted colleagues for approving automatic cuts instead of making tough choices.

The panel included education programs on a list of those hurt most by automatic cuts--a list that illustrates one motive of lawmakers who favor repealing or altering Gramm-Rudman.

In a year when defense cuts are virtually inevitable, Mr. Bush could accept automatic cuts that gouge domestic programs equally, and the process that was supposed to force both sides to bargain could become an Administration weapon.

At a March 7 hearing, three budget experts also argued that the process has not significantly cut the deficit, and has spurred lawmakers to employ creative “gimmickry."--j.m.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Federal File: Showing a new attitude; Wish lists presented