Budget Talks Go to Wire On Education

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Congress was expected late last week to send President Clinton a budget plan that included $1.2 billion to hire teachers and reduce class sizes. But the omnibus spending package did not fund pilot-testing of new national tests or school construction aid, both of which the GOP had opposed.

Last Thursday's agreement carved out $32.9 billion in fiscal 1999 for the Department of Education, an 11.9 percent increase from fiscal 1998's $29.4 billion appropriation and $600 million more than President Clinton requested.

The House and the Senate were close to voting on the spending plan at press time Friday. The package had taken much longer to negotiate than anticipated, and education issues were repeatedly cited as sticking points between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans.

The hard-fought deal for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 meshed several Clinton priorities with goals of the GOP-led Congress. For instance, the plan to hire new teachers focuses on local decisionmaking, a new Republican-backed literacy plan emphasizes teacher training instead of volunteer tutors, and special education and block grant programs receive significant funding increases.

"We don't mind helping with resources, but I'd rather have the local people pick up the tune," Rep. Mark E. Souder, R-Ind., one of the more conservative members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee who helped craft the deal, said in an interview.

In the end, time became Mr. Clinton's greatest asset, as negotiators worked overtime to cut deals in order to recess and hit the campaign trail for the Nov. 3 midterm elections.

"There isn't a member of Congress who wants to go home having voted against education," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association.

The future of Mr. Clinton's proposal for voluntary national tests for 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in mathematics, the centerpiece of his 1997 education agenda, remained a question mark late last week.

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, said he and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., insisted that the final appropriations bill contain a ban on federal funding for the development of such tests.

But the final language appeared to ban only pilot and field-testing while allowing limited development efforts, according to both sides.

Republican negotiators refused to consider Mr. Clinton's proposal to help districts pay interest on bonds for school construction and modernization, a plan that would have cost $10 billion over two years. Democrats and education groups, citing what they consider a crucial need, have vowed to continue the fight next year.

But by allowing big funding increases, the conservatives who had hoped to keep a tight rein on education spending made their job more difficult in coming years. Despite scandal and a pending impeachment investigation, Mr. Clinton repeatedly negotiated increases for his pet programs by rallying public support over the past few weeks.

Under the fiscal 1999 budget plan, after-school programs would see a 400 percent funding increase in fiscal 1999, from $40 million to $200 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Title I grants would get an additional $301 million, for $7.68 billion in this funding year. Goals 2000, Mr. Clinton's first-term school reform program, which many GOP members had hoped to cut back sharply, was slated to continue receiving its current funding of $491 million.

Two Republican spending priorities were favored with large increases. Impact Aid was set at $864 million, up 7 percent from $808 million in fiscal 1998, and the Chapter 6 school reform block-grant program was to be funded at $375 million, up 7 percent from this year's allocation of $350 million.

"It's easy to take these negotiations--they just keep giving us more funding," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of education groups.

Some Republicans and education lobbyists said districts would be wary of the $1.2 billion initiative to hire new teachers unless they were assured that they would receive federal funding past next year. "It's the $1 billion question: How do you hire teachers based on a one-time appropriation?" asked one lobbyist who requested anonymity.

But education groups and one group that studies teacher hiring, Recruiting New Teachers Inc. of Belmont, Mass., believe the job market will be responsive.

While shortages will plague some regions and some teaching fields--particularly special education and bilingual education--there are "reserve" pools of teachers who can be lured back and enough new teachers who are qualified to meet the new demand, said Elizabeth Fideler, the vice president for policy and research for Recruiting New Teachers. "We should be able to find 100,000 qualified individuals," she said.

Mr. Smith called the $1.2 billion a "downpayment" on a multi-year program and said it will help hire 30,000 teachers in fiscal 1999.

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