Amid Senate Discord, Education Budget Finally Approved

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Almost four months late, Congress completed work last week on a fiscal 2004 spending package that would continue the steady budget climb for the Department of Education, even as the 4.8 percent increase is slower than the rate of growth seen in recent years.

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View the accompanying table, "Final 2004 Budget for Education."

The Senate on Jan. 22 approved the omnibus bill, 65-28, when Democrats—who had used procedural moves to delay the bill—finally relented and allowed it to move forward. The House had approved the compromise plan, which combined seven separate appropriations bills, in early December. President Bush was expected to sign the bill.

The massive measure contains $55.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, up about $2.5 billion from fiscal 2003. It also includes a first-ever federal program to underwrite private school vouchers. The program is for students in the District of Columbia. ("Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate," this issue).

By far, the largest dollar increase is set for special education. State grants would rise by $1.2 billion, to a grand total of $10.1 billion. That amount is nearly double the $650 million in extra aid the federal government is slated to dole out under the omnibus bill for the Title I program for disadvantaged students, the centerpiece of the demanding No Child Left Behind Act. Under the spending bill, the Title I budget is to grow to $12.3 billion, a 5.6 percent increase.

Consistent with every budget President Bush has put forward since he took office three years ago, Congress once again exceeded his formal request for the Education Department, released almost a year ago. In fact, Mr. Bush's initial proposal would have lifted the agency's spending by just $26 million, well under 1 percent.

Won't Please All

"It is obvious that the legislation is not such that everybody is pleased; some people want more projects; some people want more spending; some people want less spending," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., speaking hours before a Jan. 20 procedural vote that temporarily blocked the bill. "There are many provisions in there that I personally would have liked to see turn out differently."

But Sen. Frist argued that the package represented a reasonable compromise. And he highlighted some of the education figures, such as the extra money for Title I and special education. He noted that had Democrats continued to block the package, those programs and others would have suffered under budgets frozen at the fiscal 2003 level.

"If we had to resort to a full year of a continuing resolution, these [two] education programs would lose $2 billion," he said.

But even while the final numbers were well above what the president had wanted to spend, many Democrats were unhappy with the final package. Repeating a now-familiar refrain, they believe the president isn't willing to pony up enough cash, especially for programs under the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2-year-old reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"This bill fails the test when it comes to funding for schools," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in the debate on the omnibus bill on the Senate floor last week. "And it diverts scarce public education dollars to private schools." Mr. Kennedy voted no on the final bill.

Many Democrats were also unhappy about other aspects of the bill, including provisions related to overtime pay, food labeling, and media ownership.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said last week he wouldn't block the bill any longer.

"There's too much riding" on the money in the bill, Sen. Daschle told reporters last week, according to the Associated Press. "We're certainly not going to shut down the government ... or deny important funding" for programs for the budget year that began last Oct. 1.

It was not only Democrats who complained about the package.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was among a handful of Republicans who originally helped Democrats stall the measure, and who voted no in the end.

"Sadly, this conference report is loaded with over $11 billion in special-interest pork-barrel projects and legislative riders that have no business in this or any other spending bill," Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor last week.

"[It] has received considerable and justifiable criticism in the press," he said, "and it should serve as an alarming wake-up call. We are facing a $500 billion deficit. That's half of a trillion dollars—the largest ever. And what do we do when faced with such a problem? We spend even more."

Ignoring the President

The Education Department budget was no exception to the practice of "earmarks" inserted by lawmakers for pet projects in their home districts. It contains hundreds of them totalling well over $300 million.

Overall, the Education Department numbers reflect a slowdown in budget growth when compared with recent years. In fiscal 2003, the agency's budget went up by 6.4 percent, the year before that by 18.2 percent, and by 18.6 percent in fiscal 2001.

The GOP-controlled Congress roughly matched or outspent Mr. Bush's request for a variety of programs. He asked for $9.5 billion for special education state grants, and lawmakers delivered $10.1 billion. He wanted $422 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program; they provided $441 million.

In a replay of past budget cycles, Congress largely ignored President Bush's requests to zero out a host of smaller federal programs. For example, he had sought to abolish programs for gifted and talented education, rural education, dropout prevention, arts education, and school leadership, all without success. A few programs in his crosshairs, however, didn't survive, such as the Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology program.

At the same time, lawmakers delivered noticeably less than the president wanted for some programs. For instance, he had requested $12.7 billion for Pell Grants, which are aimed at helping low-income students attend college, and the final bill sets aside about $700 million less.

In any case, with all the delay there's little time left before a new round of budgetmaking gets under way. Next week, President Bush will unveil his fiscal 2005 request, and the long process starts all over again.

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Page 26

Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Amid Senate Discord, Education Budget Finally Approved
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