Pressing the Point: Local Educators Make the Rounds
It is not unusual for school officials to drop in on members of Congress. Indeed, many experienced Washington hands believe that the most effective lobbyists are constituents. But with the current Republican leadership targeting school aid for unprecedented cuts, such visits this year are taking on greater urgency.
"Priorities are caused by political pressure," Laurie A. Westley, the assistant executive director of the National School Boards Association, told members at a recent legislative conference here. "You must be willing to create that pressure."
That is why Richard J. Carson, the superintendent of the North Hanover, N.J., public schools, and North Hanover school board member Edward R. Drechsel Jr. were making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week. Their mission was especially critical in light of the district's dependence on federal impact aid, a program that had not enjoyed broad-based support even in less difficult times.
"We're in a real dilemma," Mr. Carson told Mark A. O'Connell, an aide to Rep. H. James Saxton, R-N.J. "We're running out of money. We did not get our aid yet this year, and we could lose $1 million next year."
Mr. Carson was among about 100 school officials here last week for a two-day conference sponsored by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. Armed with NAFIS talking points, they dropped in on lawmakers and their staffs to remind them that impact aid is critical to districts that must educate students from tax-exempt military bases and American Indian reservations.
When it comes to courting support in a political arena like Congress, Mr. Carson has an advantage over many educators, because he served two terms as the mayor of Bordentown Township in New Jersey. But that does not mean he wanted to be here.
"I have the advantage of understanding the process," he said, adding: "I don't think we should have to come to Washington begging for money."
These are hard times indeed for the impact-aid community.
The program's funding dropped from $913 million in fiscal 1994 to $728 million in fiscal 1995. The Clinton administration and congressional leaders are still deadlocked over education funding for fiscal 1996, which began Oct. 1. But a bill passed by the House proposes $645 million; a companion Senate bill would allot $677 million.
Even the White House is unlikely to prove much of an ally: President Clinton proposed spending just $619 million on impact aid in his 1996 budget.
And because the program begins spending money as soon as it is appropriated, unlike most K-12 programs, impact-aid districts have suffered acute distress over the federal budget stalemate, which so far has affected most school districts only by complicating planning for 1996-97.
The Department of Education is paying out the last of $200 million in impact aid that it was allowed to distribute under a series of short-term spending bills called continuing resolutions. The most recent one expires March 15.
Federal officials have given priority to the districts with the most desperate immediate need for cash, and many districts still have not received payments that normally would have reached them by December. Mr. Carson, for example, delivered to the Education Department a request for the $3.7 million payment his district is due in fiscal 1996. The total budget for the K-6 district of 1,700 students is $10 million.
It was no surprise, therefore, that after settling around a coffee table in Rep. Saxton's office last week, Mr. Carson, employing Washington shorthand for "continuing resolution," immediately asked, "Where are we on the CR?"
"I want to tell you the way it is, not soft-shoe it," said Mr. O'Connell, the congressman's aide, who has worked on impact aid for three years. He said that a long-term budget deal between the president and Congress was not likely any time soon.
Such a pact, observers agree, is key to making more money available for education aid.
While GOP leaders oppose a third partial government shutdown, which would further delay impact-aid payments, they are pondering a yearlong continuing resolution that would set aid for all federal education programs at 75 percent of 1995 levels, Mr. O'Connell added.
Mr. Carson, whose school district would lose $900,000 under that scenario, leaned toward his host and asked if impact aid could be treated differently from other programs.
Rep. Saxton helped overturn an effort to close McGuire Air Force Base, which feeds 1,400 children into Mr. Carson's district, and is a strong supporter of impact aid.
Last fall, Mr. Carson asked Mr. Saxton to help him get a roof repaired on one of four schools on the base. The Education Department, which owns the buildings, has since agreed to repair roofs on all four schools at a cost of $2 million.
But Mr. McConnell offered little hope that his boss could persuade his Republican colleagues to spare impact aid from the budget ax.
"If we boost the numbers like Jim [Rep. Saxton] wants to boost them, we would have to pull money from somewhere else," said Mr. O'Connell.
Mr. Drechsel, who had mostly listened until that point, shook his head. "We'll either close schools or borrow money," the school board member declared.
Mr. O'Connell pledged that his boss would bring Mr. Carson's suggestions to the impact-aid coalition, a group of lawmakers supportive of the program, although he did not seem hopeful about the outcome.
Having heard the worst, the superintendent asked if the lawmaker could help set up a meeting with New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a fellow Republican.
"The state's not helping us in any shape or form. It benefits from the base, and we don't get any of the money," Mr. Carson said. "Would he have any influence?"
"We can work on a meeting with the governor." said Mr. O'Connell, promising to pass on the request to the congressman that same day. "I can't guarantee anything."
For a while, the trio reminisced about old times, thumbing through an impact-aid guide and reviewing higher funding levels of prior years.
"I really don't know how we're going to propose a [local] budget by March 4 and say we lost $1 million in federal grants and the community has to make it up," Mr. Carson said.
"I understand," Mr. O'Connell answered.