Congress OKs Education Budget With Modest Increases

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Federal education spending would increase by 2.9 percent in fiscal 2008 under a bill approved by Congress that generally favors Democratic priorities over President Bush’s.

The plan to appropriate $59.2 billion for U.S. Department of Education programs in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 is part of a larger budget drama in which Democrats gave in to a hard-line White House stance that earlier measures contained too much in the way of domestic spending increases.

The Senate gave final approval to the bill Dec. 18 by a vote of 76-17; the House approved it the next day, 272-142. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation, which is a $550 billion omnibus measure that includes fiscal 2008 spending for not only the Education Department but also most other Cabinet agencies.

Under the bill released Dec. 16, Democrats would provide $13.9 billion to the Title I program for disadvantaged students. That would be a 8.6 percent increase over the $12.8 billion appropriated for the program in fiscal 2007. But it would be about 2 percent less than what was proposed for the program in a bill vetoed by President Bush in November.

By contrast, the Reading First program is slated for a significant cut under the bill, dropping from $1 billion last year to $393 million in fiscal 2008. That is slightly more severe than the $400 million proposed for the program in the vetoed spending bill. The president said he vetoed that bill, which covered the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, because it exceeded the spending caps set in his proposed budget.

Reading First, aimed at grades K-3, is one of President Bush’s highest priorities under the No Child Left Behind Act, which also covers Title I and many other federal K-12 programs. But the program is paying a price on Capitol Hill for a series of highly critical reports over the last 15 months by the Education Department’s inspector General over favoritism for certain textbook publishers in the program’s early years.

“I'm pleased to report that we're making some pretty good progress toward coming up with a fiscally sound budget—one that meets priorities, helps on some emergencies, and enables us to say that we've been fiscally sound with the people’s money,” the president said on Dec. 17 in a speech in North Fredericksburg, Va.

Small Increases Elsewhere

Education advocates expressed disappointment over the modest increases for K-12 education programs included in the proposal.

“It’s not as good as we had hoped,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of American School Administrators, an Arlington Va.-based group. “We have not gotten to the point in Congress where they’re investing in the future.”

For K-12 education, most of the total would finance programs for the 2008-09 school year. In addition to the major increase for the Title I program and the cut to Reading First, the bill would appropriate:

• $10.9 billion for K-12 state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a nearly 1 percent increase over the fiscal 2007 level of $10.8 billion;

• $2.93 billion to help states improve the quality of their teachers, a 1.7 percent increase; and

• $1.2 billion for career and vocational education programs, a 0.5 percent decrease.

Vol. 27

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