Feds Serve Up Education 'Pork' In Fiscal 1998

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As the Department of Education doles out federal education technology money over the next 10 months, schools in Pennsylvania and Iowa will be first in line.

Iowa is guaranteed $8 million for its fiber-optic network, and a consortium of schools and businesses in the Keystone State's Delaware Valley is now legally entitled to $5 million to build a network of supercomputers.

Schools in the rest of the country will compete for the remaining $571 million in the school technology account.

Those set-aside grants are two of the "more egregious items earmarked" in the fiscal 1998 education spending bill, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a long-time critic of what is commonly referred to as "pork," or funding dedicated to favored projects in legislators' home states.

The education portion of the bill President Clinton signed into law Nov. 13 includes a total of $44.5 million in projects for specific schools, state education agencies, universities, libraries, or museums. A report that Congress approved with the law includes specific recommendations on how the Education Department should allocate another $28 million. The suggestions are not legally binding.

While the earmarking total represents a small fraction of the $29.4 billion in discretionary spending appropriated for education, it sets a record for the amount of pork in K-12 funding, lobbyists who track the bill say.

"The trend has been coming," said one lobbyist familiar with the bill, who asked not to be named. "It's sort of bursting out of the floodgates."

"You can bet that next year school districts are going to all go in there pitching," said Bruce Hunter, the government-relations director for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. "Everybody's going to be hiring lobbyists to get their oar in the water."

"If we go too far down that road ... nobody looks out for the common good. Everybody looks out for themselves," he said. "That will erode support for federal aid to education."

Bringing Home the Bacon

Congressional appropriators long have earmarked spending for specific projects that benefit their own states or districts.

Often they trumpet their accomplishments in press releases. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., for example, hailed the passage of the education funding bill because it included $1.5 million for the construction of a new elementary school in Lodgepole, Mont. In the bill language, the project is identified simply as "applicant number 11-2815." No reference is made to the applicant's location in Montana.

Is the recent earmarking in the federal education budget, as some argue, a disturbing new trend? Or simply politics as usual? Share your opinion in our on-line Town Meeting.

In past years, such set-asides rarely appeared in the bill that finances the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, according to lobbyists.

Colleges and universities, however, have often obtained special favors in other bills. For example, in 1991, Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts won $10 million in a National Science Foundation bill for a project that trains teachers to use technology in their classrooms. The NSF receives money in a bill that pays for veterans and housing programs. ("Mass. Center To Seek Ways To Better Use Technology in Teaching," Sept. 25, 1991.)

The main force behind the pork-free education bills was the late Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., who used his chairmanship of the panel that oversees education appropriations to eliminate earmarking--even earmarking initiated in the Senate. "He was a very straight arrow," said John F. Jennings, a longtime Democratic House aide. "He would tell his friends and everyone else no."

After Mr. Natcher died in office in 1994, the bill remained relatively free of earmarks until this year.

Then, appropriators went hog wild, so to speak. Once the Senate accommodated a couple of requests by members when it passed its bill this fall, lobbyists said, others jumped in and demanded money for their projects.

The result is an unprecedented number of dollars targeted to specific places. Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., who heads the panel Rep. Natcher once chaired, could not be reached for comment last week.

In addition to the $8 million designated for Iowa's fiber-optic network, the bill gives the state's department of education $8 million for a "demonstration of public school facilities repair and construction." Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that sets funding levels, took credit for both projects in a press statement released two days after the bill passed Congress. "This funding is a common sense investment in our children that will give them the tools necessary to compete in the 21st-century economy," Mr. Harkin's statement said.

While Iowa will receive money for repairs and construction, school districts outside that state will not. A House-Senate conference committee rejected a Senate amendment to pay for $100 million in school construction nationwide.

In Pennsylvania, Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia will get $100,000 for a computer network connecting libraries, as well as the grant for the Delaware Valley coalition. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is the chairman of the education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Not all of the specially earmarked funding in the education bill will go directly to schools. For example, the Fund for the Improvement of Education, an account that supports a variety of school-related projects, will give $5 million to children's museums in four cities for "innovative learning opportunities for at-risk children."

Fairness Questioned

With education earmarking on the rise, some Washington lobbyists are asking if it's fair. The most troublesome pork, some here say, is in the construction account for impact aid--funding for districts where more than more than 50 percent of their students live on military bases or American Indian reservations.

The Labor-HHS-Education spending law appropriates $7 million for the program, $2 million more than last year. But it specifically says that two school districts--identified only by the numbers of their impact-aid applications--will each receive $1.5 million of the money.

One recipient is the Montana elementary school Sen. Burns bragged about in his press release. The other is the Delta/Greely school district in Delta Junction, Alaska, according to an Education Department spokesman.

The Delta/Greeley district will spend $1.5 million to build a new school to replace a rented community center that is used to educate 17 children from a nearby Indian reservation, said Dan Beck, the superintendent of the 870-student district. The current building has no insulation in its floor and has walls that are starting to buckle, he said. Despite the need, the district would not qualify for any construction money if not for specific language in the education bill.

Sen. Ted Stevens

Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, fought to include the money, according to John Raffetto, the spokesman for the panel. After the earmarks, the other districts that qualify for the program will divide $4 million. That is the amount of money President Clinton requested for the program as a whole, Mr. Raffetto said.

"The other school districts are eligible for the same amount of funding if we hadn't put those projects in," he said.

But the chief advocate for the impact-aid program questions why two schools should receive almost half the money at the expense of others.

"It's not fair to the schools that are normally eligible," said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, a Washington-based group. "It sets a very dangerous precedent for what [the program] is designed to do."

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