It’s looking to be another big year—perhaps a record-breaker—for federal spending on education.
A House appropriations panel last week unanimously approved a $7 billion increase for the Department of Education in fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1. That vote came one day after the White House and congressional leaders negotiated extra budgetary room above President Bush’s original request, including more money for education.
The $7 billion boost, if enacted, would be the single largest dollar increase in the department’s two-decade history.
But even growth of that magnitude is unsatisfactory to some lawmakers, especially Democrats. They are working to wrest still more in a suddenly spendthrift environment, as Congress and the Bush administration work to rev up the economy and deal with the impact of the terrorist attacks last month.
Some members last week, for example, suggested tapping into emerging legislation aimed at improving the gloomy economic outlook.
“I hope that before we conclude work this year, we can do better,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “I think we have the opportunity to put funding for education in this economic-stimulus package.”
Mr. Bingaman also pointed to efforts under way to change how federal support for special education is counted in the budget—a controversial plan that, if adopted, could free up billions more for other education programs.
“I hope we can also stick with the Senate provision to make the [special education] funding automatic,” he said.
Focus on ESEA
That provision is embedded in the Senate version of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
A House-Senate conference committee is trying to complete work this year on the ESEA, a top domestic priority for President Bush. Both chambers have approved separate versions of the bill.
Democrats have used the legislation—with its proposed new demands on states and districts to improve student achievement—as a rallying cry for more federal aid.
Last month, the legislation faced one of its most vociferous attacks from an important constituency: state legislators, who would play a critical role in ensuring compliance with the new law.
The National Conference of State Legislatures delivered a letter to Congress Sept. 26 that said the House and Senate versions of the education bill were “seriously and perhaps irreparably flawed.” The letter called the requirement for testing students every year in grades 3-8 “an egregious example of a top-down, one-size-fits-all federal reform.”
A ‘Spectacular Reversal’?
After some delay, Congress last week finally began moving forward on the spending bill that covers the Department of Education and several other agencies, after sealing a revised budget arrangement with the White House.
President Bush delivered a letter to lawmakers Oct. 2 declaring his support for higher funding levels than in his original budget request—a total of $686 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2002, including $18.4 billion extra for the Department of Defense and $4 billion more for education.
Coupled with the president’s original $44.5 billon request for the Education Department, that promised an increase of at least $6.3 billion.
But while keeping within the overall spending ceiling of $686 billion, a House panel decided to do a little reshuffling and take education spending up a notch. A $700 million notch.
The spending bill approved unanimously a day later by that panel, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, contains $49.3 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, $7 billion more than for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The spending increase last fiscal year was $6.6 billion.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel praised the bill as a bipartisan effort.
When asked about complaints that the amount was still insufficient, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, replied: “This bill has a 17 percent increase, in comparison to the president’s budget, which represented only a 5 percent increase. I think that’s doing pretty doggone well.”
He added: “Would I like to see more? Sure. I’d also like to see more money for housing, more money for transportation ... but this bill is a spectacular reversal of the president’s plans to scale back the rate of increase in support for education.”
Gains for Programs
Among the programs that would see increases in the bill are Title I, which would receive $10.5 billion, up $1.7 billion from fiscal 2001. State grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would rise by $1.3 billion, to $7.7 billion. The bill also matched President Bush’s request of $975 million for his Early Reading First and Reading First initiatives. And bilingual education would receive $700 million, up from $460 million.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, issued a statement last week calling the bill a “reasonable and necessary compromise between Republicans and Democrats on education spending levels.”
At press time, the full House Appropriations Committee was expected to vote on the spending bill this week.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee still has not taken action on its version of the education spending bill. But a senior member of that panel was disappointed that congressional leaders were able to negotiate only an extra $4 billion for the education appropriations bill his subcommittee will soon act on.
“It’s not enough. It’s a good first step,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
To find more money, Sen. Harkin said, Congress should preserve the Senate ESEA proposal that would shift federal spending on special education from the discretionary side of the budget—subject to the annual appropriations process—to the mandatory side, where increases could be locked in for years to come. Such a change would free up about $6 billion this year for other education programs, he said.
“If Bush wants his [education] bill, he’s going to have to work with us on the funding of IDEA,” Mr. Harkin declared. “I will hold up the bill. I will stop the bill if we don’t get the IDEA funding.”
Others kept their rhetorical sabers sheathed, but still said more education money was needed. And they are also eyeing the economic-stimulus package, which is likely to contain a blend of tax-cut and spending measures.
But Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the senior Republican on the education committee, said that while he is comfortable with the $4 billion extra, that’s about as much of a hike as anyone should expect for education.
“I would seriously doubt that there’s any wiggle room beyond this,” he said.
On the IDEA funding issue, it remains unclear what will happen. The politics are complicated: While President Bush opposes making the program mandatory, several Republicans are openly pushing for it. But Rep. Obey, the chief Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, opposes the idea.
NCSL Letter Challenged
As the ESEA and funding debates drag on, the National Conference of State Legislatures sought to weigh in last month, issuing one of the sharpest public critiques yet of the pending bill to reauthorize the ESEA.
The letter, signed by four leaders of the group—three Republican legislators and one Democrat—complained about a range of provisions, including the testing and accountability requirements, teacher-quality measures, and data- collection demands.
"[W]e feel that expediency has triumphed over good policy,” the letter says. “The proposals were not researched thoroughly and their ramifications were not thought through adequately.”
Sandy Kress, the president’s chief education adviser, criticized the letter and suggested it does not necessarily speak widely for the views of state lawmakers.
“I cannot believe that state legislators across the country even have any [knowledge] whatsoever of what these folks who wrote this letter had to say,” he said.
He also questioned the content. “A lot of the letter is factually inaccurate or out of date,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the criticism that both versions of the bill would overidentify schools as “failing.”
"[The letter] shows no awareness that the conferees have been working aggressively on trying to fix that problem,” he said. “It’s not only untrue, it’s awful lobbying.”
Mr. Kress predicted the letter would not impede progress on the ESEA, a point seconded by David Schnittger, a spokesman for Chairman Boehner of the House education committee.
“At this point, this letter is not likely to have a significant impact on the process,” Mr. Schnittger said. “The points being raised here are seen widely as eleventh-hour criticisms from an organization that just recently realized that these reforms are going to happen.”
“I’m wearing my chain mail suit today,” quipped David L. Shreve, the senior director for the NCSL’s committee on education, labor, and workforce development, when asked about the criticism. But he said the NCSL stands by its letter.
“This is an enormously complex piece of legislation,” he said. “It’s moved very fast. The hearing process was very limited. ... Most of our concerns have been ignored.”
He also emphasized that the organization conducted more outreach than usual to secure buy-in from legislators for the letter’s message. “We actually went to greater lengths on this letter than we normally go to, because we expected those kinds of attacks, because it’s an unpopular position to take,” he said.
State Sen. Jane Krentz of Minnesota, the Democrat who signed the letter as the chairwoman of the NCSL’s education committee, said it should not be viewed as having a political bias. She noted that the other three signers were Republicans.
“Is [the letter] something that has been voted on by legislators across the country? No,” she said. “At the same time, this is a bipartisan group; ... it is not a partisan attack. It is a heartfelt concern.” She said the letter was generally consistent with previous stances the NCSL has taken.
“We have irritated both parties successfully,” she said. “That’s not the intent. It got attention, and so that’s good. Maybe they’ll respond.”