Education Money Focus of Budget Quagmire

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Patience. That's what anybody wondering how much the federal government will pony up for education next school year is going to need.

Congress is at a standstill over the Department of Education's budget—and funding levels for many other agencies. Lawmakers likely won't complete work on appropriations until after the midterm elections next month. Some have even begun to suggest that Congress might not finish the budget for fiscal 2003— which began Oct. 1—until early next year.

The House and the Senate last week approved a second "continuing resolution" to keep the government running through Oct. 11.

The current impasse has prompted plenty of fingerpointing.

"Republican leaders have stopped even trying to do their work," Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said on the House floor Sept. 26. "They have given up on doing the most basic job Congress is elected to do: fund important initiatives in education, health care, and other key American priorities."

The Republican-controlled House has taken no action on the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, either in committee or on the floor. The chamber, despite a 223-208 GOP majority (with one Independent who typically votes with Democrats, and three vacancies), appears to lack sufficient votes to pass the bill at the level backed by President Bush and the House Republican leadership.

For their part, some Republicans blame the Senate, which has not voted on a resolution setting an overall discretionary-spending limit for fiscal 2003.

"The problem is the Senate never passed a budget resolution," Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview last week. "There's no agreed-upon numbers. And so, we're kind of shooting baskets in the dark here in terms of what are the numbers."

The House has, however, passed the spending bills for five other major sectors of the federal government already.

'A Favorite Photo Op'

President Bush in February requested $50.3 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department. That represented a modest increase—$1.4 billion, or 2.8 percent—over the fiscal 2002 total. Since then, Congress approved an extra $1 billion in fiscal 2002 to shore up the Pell Grant program, which helps students from low-income families pay for college.

The Senate Appropriations Committee upped the ante in July, passing a bill that contained an extra $2.8 billion above the president's February request.

Democrats for months have been taking shots at Mr. Bush's education proposal, arguing that the need for K-12 spending is especially great given the new demands of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, which the president signed in January.

Late last month, the Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee issued a report with a name that speaks for itself: "All Rhetoric, No Resources: Why the FY 2003 Bush Education Budget Will Leave Millions of Children Behind."

"Schools remain simultaneously a favorite 'photo op' of the White House advance staff and a favorite target of White House budget staff," the report charges.

Republicans have been quick to respond.

"We had this huge increase last year, we've got another increase layered on top of it again this year, and we're not even through the budget process," Rep. Boehner said Sept. 28 at an education conference in Denver. "Money alone will not fix these problems [in education]."

When the federal money will arrive in school district bank accounts is an open question.

In an interview, Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen said there "shouldn't be any impact" on schools from a delay in completing the fiscal 2003 budget, even if the debate carries over into January or February. He cautioned, however, that if it were to linger into March, there could be reason for concern.

Some education lobbyists suggest a significant delay would impede budgetary planning for districts.

The problem could be more severe for those school districts that rely heavily on the $1.1 billion impact- aid program, which provides financial aid to districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of federal installations. While most federal K-12 money will not be issued until later next year, school districts get all or most of their impact aid once the appropriations bill becomes law. Under continuing resolutions, districts instead get the money in smaller increments and can encounter cash flow problems.

"About 250 districts are ones that rely on impact aid to such an extent that if there's an undue delay or less money than expected, we'll have significant problems," said John B. Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, based in Washington.

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the education spending bill, complained bitterly when Republicans blocked his effort to bring that bipartisan bill to the floor for a vote.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., said the problem is that the Senate has been bogged down for weeks on another bill that pays for the Department of the Interior and other agencies. But one Senate Democratic aide suggested that was not the real reason the GOP is blocking the education spending bill.

"For the Senate to approve this bill would be embarrassing to the president and the House leadership," the aide said, noting the bill's bipartisan support when reported out of committee.

Holding the Line

On the House side, some analysts and lawmakers argue that the real problem is an internal squabble among Republicans.

A group of conservatives has insisted on holding the line on spending to the overall totals spelled out by President Bush. To keep fiscal discipline, they pressed Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R- Ill., over the summer to bring up the education spending bill before proceeding to any additional budget bills, since it might be an especially tempting place to exceed the president's request. Since July, when the House had already passed five of the 13 required appropriation bills, it has not voted on any of the other spending bills.

Virtually all Democrats are likely to oppose a spending bill matching the president's request, as well as some moderate Republicans, including Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform.

"He just has real concerns that a lot of the social programs ... are underfunded," including education, said Elizabeth Wenk, a spokeswoman for Mr. Castle.

Asked how many Republicans would oppose a bill at the spending level advocated by Mr. Bush and House GOP leaders, she replied: "It's a large enough number that the bill would go down."

Vol. 22, Issue 6, Pages 27, 29

Published in Print: October 9, 2002, as Education Money Focus of Budget Quagmire
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