Lawmakers Back School-Aid Increases for Fiscal '97

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The outlook for federal school aid improved last week, as the Senate voted to add $5 billion in domestic spending to its fiscal 1997 budget plan.

That followed an earlier vote by House appropriators to ratify a 1997 spending plan that would give the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education $64.8 billion to divide among programs in its jurisdiction. That is $1.6 billion more than was appropriated for its programs last year.

While it was a promising week for school lobbyists here, who spent most of the past year fighting proposals for record spending cuts in education, it was the Senate action that they said offered the greatest hope.

After nearly a week of debate on a 1997 budget resolution, Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., offered the amendment to add $5 billion for domestic spending, about $1.7 billion of it earmarked for the spending category that includes education, training, and social programs.

The amendment reflected calls by moderate Republicans to boost aid for education and training.

"This is a better solution because it spreads more money around in more areas," said a GOP Senate aide.

Twenty-nine Republicans joined all but one Democrat--Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin--to pass the amendment 75-25.

Earlier in the week, the Senate voted 52-48 to table a Democrat-sponsored amendment that would have raised spending on education and training by $56 billion through 2002 with offsetting tax increases.

The Senate voted 53-46 to approve the $1.6 trillion federal budget package for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Budget resolutions are nonbinding spending guides for appropriations panels. The Senate bill calls for $38 billion in discretionary funds for the education-and-training category, compared with $35.4 billion in the bill approved by the House May 10. The category was allotted $36.2 billion last year.

Deliberations Ahead

And House appropriators acknowledged that the subcommittee allocations they approved last week may rise after the two budget bills are reconciled. Appropriators divide funds among subcommittees based on the budget plans, although their categories do not precisely coincide with the jurisdiction of the subcommittees.

Even though it was based on the less generous House budget resolution, the House appropriations plan, which the committee approved 28-10 on May 23, avoids the huge cuts that the House panel proposed last year for education and other social programs. The GOP proposal spawned a six-month battle with the White House.

"The recommendation was not to fight the same fight as last year," said Elizabeth Morra, the spokeswoman for the committee.

"The allocations in the House are better than last year, but that's because they tried to cut $4 billion last year," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition here. "There's still not enough to keep up with enrollment increases."

Indeed, while last week's developments were encouraging to education advocates and Clinton administration officials, they pointed out that the proposals would not keep school programs at their fiscal 1996 spending levels. They noted that the 1996 federal budget included $1.3 billion in delayed funding for Title I remedial education that must be accounted for in the 1997 budget, an issue that has not been addressed by the House or Senate plan.

"The Domenici amendment is a step in the right direction," said Susan Frost, the special budget adviser to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "But it doesn't get us to a freeze, let alone to the president's level."

Vol. 15, Issue 36

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