'Slumbering Giant' Awakens To Do Battle on Education Budget
Washington--The swift success of President Reagan's budget-cutting and block-grants proposals for education programs last year is most often attributed to two factors: the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate and the vulnerability of education and other "discretionary" programs in a federal budget dominated by entitlements and defense spending.
But another more subtle factor made the Administration's task last year that much easier. Education lobbyists, who had grown "fat and happy"--in the words of one of them--from their successes with the Carter Administration, were totally unprepared to fight the new President's retrenchment proposals.
Last spring and summer, as Congressional conservatives were preparing the huge budget "reconciliation" bill that would change the status quo of federal education programs, lobbyists say they were disorganized, ill-informed on how education spending related to the total federal budget, and unable to come up with an acceptable argument against block grants.
The crushing defeat--26 education programs were consolidated into a block-grants package and President Carter's proposed budget was cut by nearly one-third--has, however, had a galvanizing effect on the numerous Washington representatives of state and local education groups.
This year, the lobbyists have banded together to prevent last year's defeat from being repeated. Although the President's new budget will not even be proposed until next week, members of more than 80 disparate groups--representing nearly the entire spectrum of public and private schools and colleges--began several months ago to revive a 13-year-old coalition that was formed to combat another budget-cutting Republican President, Richard M. Nixon.
The Committee for Full Funding of Education Programs, organized in 1969 by a former Senate staff member, claims responsibility for prodding members of Congress to add nearly $8 billion to Presidential education budgets between 1969 and 1978.
Although the committee was relatively inactive during the pro-education Carter years, members are gearing up for a major battle with the Reagan Administration to preserve their past budget victories. Their preparation includes grassroots letter-writing campaigns, national press conferences, in-service training sessions on topics ranging from economics to obscure education laws, and "networks" of lobbying and information-gathering on Capitol Hill.
Although all of these techniques are expected to help their lobbying efforts this year, the committee is counting most heavily on the method that resulted in a decisive victory in 1969: bringing local educators to Washington.
In that battle, the committee, which at the time included the word "emergency" in its name, brought nearly 1,500 state and local association members to Washington to converge on the House of Representatives in one week.
The focal point of that campaign was a vote on several amendments, which committee members had helped Congressional staffers prepare, that added more than $900 million to the fiscal 1970 education appropriations bill.
According to August W. Steinhilber, one of the original organizers of the committee, the favorable vote--which has since become a legend and a rallying cry to education lobbyists--is known as "the day the House was rolled for a billion dollars."
During the next several years, the committee succeeded in defeating Mr. Nixon's impoundment of federal funds and President Gerald Ford's proposals to reduce spending for federal education programs, says Mr. Steinhilber, who is now director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association (nsba).
Throughout the early 1970's, members attended weekly breakfast meetings when the Congress was in session, and the committee produced lengthy, detailed quarterly reports on the progress of its efforts.
But the committee's tight organization began to unravel, say several members, when the Carter Administration, without much prodding, added billions of dollars for education programs to its federal budget proposals.
During those "heady days," the committee "became a slumbering giant, gradually evolving into an information-sharing organization that monitored and observed the Carter Administration," says Alfred D. Sumberg, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors and the committee's newly elected president.
At the same time, education organizations became fragmented, Mr. Sumberg says. "Some very specialized groups formed--for handicapped students, student financial aid, private colleges--groups that responded to specific needs. Very few people understood what everyone else was doing."
In addition, the National Education Association (nea) took the lead in pressing Congress to create the Education Department--a proposal many other groups supported only half-heartedly. This move, according to some committee members, created hostility between the nea and other education organizations.
When Mr. Reagan proposed his sweeping block-grants packages, "we were caught off guard," says Dena G. Stoner, a lobbyist for the nsba "We were not able to talk substance [to Congressional staff members]. Our words were blown away by this concept of economic revitalization and productivity."
In addition, she says, there was little support from organization members. "We weren't able to get a response when we requested [grassroots association members] to write or call their Congressmen. A lot of people thought we should give the President's program a chance."
Mr. Sumberg says he hopes that this year, when the effects of budget cuts on some programs are being felt locally, the committee can "get moving." He points out: "The forward-funding feature of federal education programs postpones most of the effects of budget cuts for a year. But some cuts--in school lunch, guaranteed student loans, and impact-aid programs--already are beginning to show up.
"Members of Congress have to be conscious of the impact of cuts and of the recession," he adds. "The 1982 elections are coming up. If they aren't already aware, there'll be an awful lot of people in education who are going to remind them of it."
If the committee does succeed this year, all members interviewed say it will be because they followed the advice and example of the committee's organizer, Charles Lee. As an aide to former Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon--a political ally of President Lyndon B. Johnson and one of the architects of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act--Mr. Lee had been involved from the start in the Great Society education programs.
Although Mr. Lee retired from Congressional work in 1968, he returned to Washington from Oregon the following year when he "saw that those programs were threatened. A certain amount of my motivation [for organizing the committee] was intellectual curiosity. I wanted to know how the things we'd done would work if they were well funded," he recalls.
During the next several years, Mr. Lee--as the committee's executive director--became known on Capitol Hill as "someone who always seemed to have a way to find out what was going on. He had been involved in education longer than anybody else around there," says Samuel W. Hunt, a former staff member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on education.
Mr. Lee also masterminded the 1969 budget-amendment strategy, although he acknowledges that the techniques--such as packing the House gallery during the floor vote--were borrowed from those used previously to pass civil-rights legislation.
During his years with the committee, Mr. Lee pioneered other lobbying techniques: helping Congressional committees prepare, for the benefit of other members, reports that included district-by-district breakdowns of the effects of their bills; urging state and local educators to visit their Congressmen to "engage in small-group dynamics"; and "putting out the general call" to members of the education community when an important bill was scheduled for a vote, he says.
Mr. Lee is convinced that those methods can again be used successfully. "Members of Congress are basically the same people they were years ago. They are hardworking and they have a certain paranoia about how they are perceived back home. They will listen," he says.
He also says certain similarities exist between the Reagan and Nixon Administrations. "They both engage in 'executive prerogative.' That inflames anybody who feels the divine right of kings ought not to prevail."
In spite of this year's challenge, Mr. Lee says he will soon retire, passing on his knowledge to younger lobbyists. "I've gone through three generations of education leaders. Some of the characters I first worked with are not even around anymore."
Because "it would take seven people to fill the shoes" of Mr. Lee, says Mr. Sumberg, the committee will operate under a 25-member board of directors. Their work will be supplemented by two "working groups of young, front-line lobbyists"--one to deal with elementary and secondary education, another to cover higher education, he says.
The younger lobbyists already have identified the priorities for their offensive strategy. "Twelve years ago, most of the arguments were made in favor of alleviating poverty, helping children to do better," says Ms. Stoner.
"The new theme for the 80's," she continues, "is productivity--how to foster students' ability to function in a technological work force."