GOP Skeptical of Clinton's New School Plans

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In the three years since Republicans took over Congress, they've complained that the numerous federal programs for schools don't give districts enough leeway in spending the money.

Just six days after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., reinforced that message in a nationally televised speech, President Clinton sent the GOP-led Congress a budget with 13 new education programs.

Sen. Trent Lott

Mr. Clinton's proposals for 100,000 new teachers, school construction aid, urban school reform, and other priorities represent an agenda that attacks specific problems by creating new pots of money to help schools solve them. It's a common practice, one that Republicans themselves engage in, analysts say.

"If you're a politician, you want to address the problems that are important to the nation and that are politically popular," said Robert D. Reischauer, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank. "Clinton has done that from the very start, and I don't think he's disingenuous."

But it's not the president's sincerity that Republicans question. It's his practicality.

Mr. Clinton will be able to sell his agenda on Capitol Hill only if he can convince Republicans that it does not add to the bureaucratic morass the GOP says already eats up too many federal dollars intended for K-12 schools.

"Washington today has more than 750 education programs, in 39 different bureaucracies," Mr. Lott said in his Jan. 27 televised response to the president's State of the Union Address. "That just doesn't make sense."

Assessing Priorities

Even the number of federal education programs is in dispute. The Republican figure comes from counting every program referred to as educational in the Office of Management and Budget's Catalogue of Federal and Domestic Assistance.

The list includes programs completely unrelated to K-12 or higher education, such as initiatives to train air-traffic controllers.

The General Accounting Office, on the other hand, found that there are only 10 Department of Education programs that pay for classroom instruction and other "direct" aid in K-12 schools. Another 55 of the department's programs assist with teacher training, anti-drug education, or other "indirect" help, the GAO, Congress' research arm, said in a Jan. 21 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Regardless of the number, the breadth of the federal role is too great, say Republicans, most of whom endorsed a proposal by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., last year to combine most federal education spending into large block grants with few funding restrictions attached.

The debate over block grants is expected to continue this year.("House Rejects Block Grants in Passing Appropriation," Sept. 24, 1997.

In Florida, the state pays 297 people to manage $1 billion in federal education funds, according to the state's Republican commissioner of education.

By contrast, 374 employees oversee seven times that budget from state funds.

"We at the state and local level feel the crushing burden caused by too many federal regulations, procedures, and mandates," Frank T. Brogan, the Florida education commissioner and the chairman of the Education Leaders Council, a state policymakers' group, told a Senate Budget Committee task force recently.

"Congress should identify priority areas and allow states to designate the dollars for specific programs," he argued. "This would give states flexibility and allow Congress and the Department of Education to move toward a performance-based review of programs."

Targeted Initiatives

Despite their rhetoric, congressional Republicans have an agenda that calls for creating at least three new budget line items.

The GOP's eight-point education bill endorsed by Sen. Lott would create a five-year school choice project, a grant program to improve safety in schools, and a modified version of the president's 1996 proposal for a new literacy initiative.

Democrats, too, are getting into the act.

While he did not cite any new programs in an event with Hispanic leaders earlier this month, Vice President Al Gore highlighted proposed spending in the president's fiscal 1999 budget plan that he said would be a boon to Hispanic students.

At the Feb. 2 White House event, Mr. Gore released an Education Department report that says the dropout rate for Hispanic students is 40 percent, 3« times higher than it is for non-Hispanic whites.

In response, he said the administration proposes increasing federal funding by $600 million for eight programs that benefit Hispanic and other at-risk students. Those programs currently receive $8.8 billion in the fiscal 1998 budget. ("U.S. Report Tracks High Dropout Rate Among Hispanics," Feb. 11, 1998.)

While not all of the programs directly aid Hispanic students, the package clearly is intended to shore up support among a minority group that sometimes wavers in its allegiance to Democrats, said Mr. Reischauer, who worked previously as the director of the Congressional Budget Office under a Democratic-majority Congress.

"There's certainly a lot of politics in that," he said. Democrats are "doing everything they can to solidify their support" within the Hispanic community.

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