House Rejects Block Grants in Passing Appropriation
The House passed an education spending bill last week that was most noteworthy for what it did not include: a counterpart to a provision in the Senate appropriations bill that would turn most federal education programs into block grants.
But debate on the Senate's decision to move $13.5 billion in federal education funding into block grants reverberated through the House last week, as one prominent Republican introduced, but later withdrew from consideration, an amendment that would have transformed funding for several major programs into block grants. He later said the block grant issue was not dead.
"This is the start of a larger debate on redefining how we help our children," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who introduced the failed block grant measure in the House.
The House bill, HR 2264, would provide increases for several programs over this year's funding and $32.1 billion for education overall. Education for the disadvantaged, including Title I, was allotted $8.2 billion, up from $7.8 billion in fiscal 1997. Pell Grants would receive $7.4 billion, with the maximum grant for needy college students increasing from $2,700 to $3,000. Special education state grants would rise from $3.8 billion this year to $4.1 billion.
Impact-aid funding, which reimburses districts that lose local revenue because of federal activities would also see an increase--$66 million above this year's funding, to $796 million. President Clinton had wanted to cut the program to $658 million.
Congressional appropriators are now faced with the task of writing a compromise bill that must be passed by both chambers. With the end of the fiscal year--Sept. 30--fast approaching, the chairman and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee recently announced that they would seek a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running through Oct. 9 regardless of whether final spending bills had been passed by that time.
In the House last week, the block grant measure sponsored by Mr. Hoekstra was heaped with criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. It would have funneled money for efforts such as teacher training, educational technology, and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Program through an existing block grant formula. Many states would have seen huge increases or reductions in funds under that formula.
But because House rules forbid using appropriations bills to make substantive legislative changes, Mr. Hoekstra could not rewrite the existing block grant's formula for distributing money. His proposed plan would have shifted money out of California, Texas, and New York--the states with the largest voting delegations in the House.
"That would have moved the whole debate," Mr. Hoekstra said in an interview shortly after withdrawing the amendment. "We would have put our members on record voting against money for their states."
President Clinton threatened to veto the entire spending bill if a joint conference committee retained language passed in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that would channel funding for most education programs directly to local districts through block grants. Sen. Gorton contends that the language would rightly place more funding decisions in the hands of local school officials instead of state and federal bureaucrats. ("Senate Passes Spending Bill With Block Grants," Sept. 17, 1997.)
Mr. Hoekstra has been probing allegedly wasteful federal education programs in his role as chairman of the House education subcommittee that handles oversight and investigations. He also has introduced legislation to drive more federal dollars directly to local schools and vowed to continue to promote the block grant plan.
A Tool for Debate
But some observers and House members have dismissed the Gorton amendment as merely a bargaining tool for Republicans.
Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the leading Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview that the Gorton amendment "clearly would be veto bait."
John F. Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former top education policy aide for House Democrats, called the amendment "irresponsible."
The amendment would have almost no chance of being included in a final bill because it appears to lack crucial support from House leaders, he said, adding that the debate on simplifying the federal role in education will likely continue.
But the Gorton amendment did pass the test of one conservative think tank in Washington. "Any and all attempts to reduce bureaucracy and send dollars closer to the classroom ought to be applauded," said Nina Shokraii, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
Meanwhile, some local education officials--the people that Republicans had hoped to attract to their plan--expressed concerns about how districts would spend the money if given that much control.
Jim Dryden, the principal of Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, Md., predicted that the block grant plan, if passed, would lead to less federal money and elimination of some programs. "The first way of killing programs is putting them into block grants," he said.
Staff writer David J. Hoff contributed to this report.