Budget News Is Sweet for Education Insiders

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When Republicans took over Congress in 1995, their plan to balance the federal budget included drastic cuts in education spending.

School lobbyists complained, saying that the $30 billion or so spent by the Department of Education was but a small fraction of the $1.5 trillion federal budget.

"Our point has been it's not necessary to sacrifice investment in education to balance the budget," Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, said last week. The CEF is an umbrella organization of 90 education groups that lobbies for federal aid.

Last week, Mr. Kealy and his allies were able to declare victory. That's because the White House and congressional accountants both said the deficit for the current fiscal year will drop to almost nothing by the standards of the past decade and a half.

More important for the education community, the reduction in red ink occurred even as the federal government raised education appropriations by 37 percent over the past two years, up to $29.4 billion for fiscal 1998.

The budget righted itself because tax revenues grew at three times the rate of the economy, according to Franklin D. Raines, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. That meant programs didn't need to be cut to erase the annual deficit, which five years ago the OMB estimated would be $357 billion in fiscal 1998.

The omb now projects a $22 billion deficit this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and the Congressional Budget Office, which traditionally is more conservative, expects the shortfall to be minimal. Both estimates show surpluses throughout the next decade.

As Washington prepares for a year in which all 435 House slots and one-third of the Senate seats are up for election, how to spend--or save--a possible surplus will likely become the biggest debate topic on Capitol Hill. It's a debate that education groups will be watching with interest.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., already is advocating tax relief over spending on new programs. He and other Republicans want to eliminate the federal income-tax-rate structure that forces married couples to pay higher taxes than single people with similar incomes. The GOP lawmakers also want to abolish estate taxes.

President Clinton, on the other hand, said that policymakers should wait for the budget to balance before spending any leftover funds. "Any policy we adopt must not, it cannot, run any risk of returning to the failed [fiscal] policies of the past," he said Jan. 5 after announcing the Office of Management and Budget's latest budget projections.

New Possibilities

With that said, the president still wants to start several new programs. In his fiscal 1999 budget plan, expected Feb. 2, he will propose "major new investments with special emphasis on fixing failing schools, higher standards, school construction, and upgrading teacher quality," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement last week.

Last week, the president announced a nearly $22 billion proposal to support a variety of child-care initiatives. ("Clinton Proposes $22 Billion In New Child-Care Initiatives," in This Week's News.)

Mr. Clinton previously announced that he will propose a new grant program to help impoverished urban and rural areas install standards-based reform. ("Clinton Plan Would Target Poor Schools," Dec. 10, 1997.)

The president suggested in a news conference last month that universities should help disadvantaged K-12 students prepare for college admissions. Just last week, the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development held a joint conference to help universities assist K-12 schools in their communities.

"It's getting harder and harder to deliver necessary services to students if the schools are operating in a vacuum," Gerald N. Tirozzi, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said at the conference on Jan. 8. "The present paradigm of schooling will not work."

On the Republican side, Mr. Gingrich listed improving schools as one of his four top goals in a speech last week spelling out his long-term agenda. But he emphasized that most of the work needed to be done by local officials, and he did not call for new federal spending.

"Our goal ought to be the best system of learning in the world," Mr. Gingrich said in a speech to the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce in suburban Atlanta.

He urged business leaders in the audience to help local superintendents raise academic standards and reconstitute schools where children aren't learning up to those standards.

Later, he said that schools should abandon bilingual education programs that do not teach students to read English by the time they finish 4th grade. He did not say whether he believed the federal government should cut off funding to schools that don't meet that goal.

The only legislation he endorsed is a resolution calling for every American schoolchild to spend one day a year studying the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

"They are the core of being an American," Mr. Gingrich said. "It is impossible for any judge ... to argue that a teacher should not explain what the word 'creator' means in the Declaration of Independence since it is a secular document. It will do all of us good if every child begins to learn that they are endowed by their creator, and so is the person next to them."

Dollars and Cents

While Speaker Gingrich's agenda reaches beyond money, the focus of those who lobby Congress will continue to be on the bottom line.

"We are going to be making the case that there is a large number of pent-up, unfunded needs in education on all levels that have been put on hold," Mr. Kealy of the CEF said.

Those include the need for K-12 schools to handle surging enrollments and an increasing child-poverty rate, he said.

School programs often win significant funding increases in election years. Little more than a month before the 1996 election, for example, the Republican-dominated Congress outbid Mr. Clinton in education spending. The members voted to boost spending by $3.5 billion--$673 million more than the president had requested.

School programs may do that well again next fall when Congress traditionally finishes its spending bill for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

But the only likely bet so far is that Mr. Clinton and Republican leaders see education as one of the issues they will spotlight as the two parties prepare to woo voters in the midterm elections.

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