Lawmakers Move on 1998 Funding Increases for Education

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Members of Congress moved their budget agreement with President Clinton a step closer to reality last week, with the House passing a budget resolution that would encompass most of his education priorities. The Senate was expected to follow suit late last week.

Building on the recent bipartisan balanced-budget deal, congressional budgeters took an extra step and called for funding several of President Clinton's requests for education programs, including bilingual and immigrant education, Pell Grants, and a new literacy initiative along the lines of the America Reads proposal. Head Start would receive an additional $2.7 billion over five years.

House and Senate appropriators still must sign off on individual programs' funding, however. After that, their appropriations bills must win full House and Senate approval and President Clinton's signature.

If the plan makes it through the lengthy process as is, it would provide up to a $4.3 billion increase in overall funding next year, up from an estimated $42 billion in fiscal 1997 discretionary funds, for the budget category that includes education, training, social services, and related programs such as Head Start.

The House resolution, a nonbinding document that lays out a broad blueprint for spending, also recommends spending $946 million over four years for programs related to education reform and an unspecified amount for a new child-literacy initiative "consistent with the goals and concepts of the president's America Reads program," according to the Department of Education.

The resolution would allow for $35 billion over five years in tax cuts for postsecondary education. It does not, however, call for new school construction funding as President Clinton had requested earlier this year, nor does it seek a tobacco-tax increase to pay for expanded children's health-care coverage as some children's advocates had hoped it would.

Speed Bumps Ahead

Some terms of the resolution may be thwarted as soon as Republican appropriators get their say. Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he plans to review each program before it is funded.

"It's my job to set specific spending levels for programs," Mr. Livingston said. "This agreement does not prevent my committee from attempting to terminate or cut programs of questionable worth."

Mr. Clinton's Goals 2000 school reform initiative may be one such target, according to committee spokeswoman Elizabeth Morra.

While Education Department officials said they felt confident the program would survive, Republicans have repeatedly dubbed the program a wasteful bureaucracy.

Pell Grants for needy college students, however, might have a better shot because the proposed increases are largely supported by Republicans on the committee, Ms. Morra said. Under the agreement, Pell Grant funding would increase by $1.7 billion in fiscal 1998, boosting the maximum grant by $300, to $3,000, for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Still, appropriators will risk a presidential veto if they veer too far from the agreement, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of education groups.

If the agreement stands, "it'll allow an increase in education funding comparable to what we got last year," Mr. Kealy said. Education Department programs received a $3.6 billion boost then, bringing the total to $28.8 billion for fiscal 1997.

Several Republicans have also supported large increases for funding tied to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation's main special education law, which Congress recently reauthorized. ("House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill," May 21, 1997.)

As the IDEA bill passed through the Senate, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., vowed to press for more funding to help states cover the costs of special education programs.

Engine for Harmony?

At a press conference last week, Democratic senators and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley praised the proposed increases in education spending overall and said the deal came close to meeting most of their original requests.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., called the provisions in the budget deal "the single biggest achievement we have made in elementary and secondary education in more than a generation."

Mr. Dodd labeled education the "engine that brought everyone together," with both parties eager to increase spending for education programs.

Despite all the good feelings expressed, some education lobbyists say appropriators may not have enough money left over to give large increases to existing programs and keep up with enrollment increases.

Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said he worries that the education appropriators will not have enough money "to meet the promises other people have made."

To achieve a balanced budget by 2002, the resolution would curtail domestic discretionary spending over the next five years, meaning that additional aid for education may be sparse.

But Mr. Kealy said the resolution puts education in a much better position than last year, when House Republicans called for elimination of federal funding for some programs.

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