Bush Budget Proposes Level Funding of Education Dept.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s overall budget would remain stagnant at $59.2 billion under a fiscal year 2009 proposal released by President Bush that includes a modest boost for Title I grants to school districts, the main funding vehicle for implementing the No Child Left Behind Act.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings linked the proposed Title I increase with the renewal of the six-year-old NCLB law, which is pending in Congress.

“As we are on the eve of reauthorizing NCLB I think it’s important to note that resources follow policy,” Ms. Spellings said in a conference call with reporters today.

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the proposed $14.3 billion for Title I grants, a 2.9 percent increase over fiscal 2008, was not sufficient to help schools meet the goals of the law.

“The president’s proposed increase for funding for public schools through the No Child Left Behind law is not enough even to keep pace with inflation,” Rep. Miller said in a statement. “The president has made it clear that he intends to end his administration the same way he started it—by breaking his promises to public schools and schoolchildren.”

The president’s budget request also seeks new money for expanded school choice programs and would reverse a severe cut made by Congress to the controversial Reading First program. But, like past Bush administration budgets, the fiscal 2009 proposal would scrap some programs popular with lawmakers, including the $1.16 billion Career and Technical Education State Grants program.

The request comes less than two months after Congress and the administration wrapped up a protracted budget battle for fiscal 2008, which began Oct. 1. Lawmakers initially approved $60.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department in the current fiscal year, a 5.6 percent increase over fiscal 2007. But President Bush vetoed that bill. Democratic leaders in Congress sought to override the veto in November, but fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed. The $59.2 billion budget for education was the result of a compromise late in the session.

Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying organization, said he expects a similar scenario this year.

“I think [Congress] is going to ignore emphatically this last budget and write their own,” Mr. Kealy said. “I’m sure it most likely will bring us back to a replay” of last year’s spending showdown, he added.

Expanding Choice

In addition to the Title I increase, Mr. Bush proposed a hike for state grants for students in special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. His budget calls for $11.3 billion, about a 3 percent boost over fiscal 2008.

To free up funds to help schools that aren’t meeting the goals of the NCLB law, the budget proposal seeks to revise a provision in the law that calls for states to set aside 4 percent of their total Title I allocation for school improvement activities. The proposal also includes a “hold harmless” requirement for districts, meaning that no district may receive less Title I money than it did the previous year because of the set-aside.

Under the administration’s proposal, states could set aside the full 4 percent, even if that meant reducing aid to districts. Twenty-nine states would not be able to reserve the full 4 percent during the 2007-08 school year, according to a report released in August by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization.

The request seeks to expand school choice options through a $300 million “Pell Grants for Kids” program, which the president’s outlined in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. The proposal would make competitive grants available to states, school districts, other local governments, and non-profit organizations to develop K-12 “scholarship” programs for low-income students in schools that are struggling to meet the goals of the NCLB law, as well as those in high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent. Parents could use the money to send their children to out-of-district public schools or to religious or secular private schools.

Last year, President Bush proposed expanding school choice through “promise” and “opportunity” scholarships, funded at $300 million in his fiscal 2008 budget request. That proposal fell flat with Democratic lawmakers, who lambasted it as a federal voucher program. The “Pell Grants for Kids” idea met with a similar criticism after last week’s State of the Union.

But Secretary Spellings said that, “With each passing year kids attend schools that are labeled as underperforming. … I think it our responsibility is to provide life-lines for kids that are in those schools. This one way to do that.”

Building on the idea of expanded choice, the proposal also seeks to overhaul the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, renaming it the 21st Century Learning Opportunities program. The budget would cut the program’s funding from about $1.08 billion this year to $800 million, a nearly 26 percent decrease.

Under the existing program, states receive funds through formula grants, which they then allocate to school districts, non-profit organizations, and other recipients to finance after-school and summer programs, particularly for students attending high-poverty schools.

Under the administration’s proposal, funds would continue to flow from the Education Department to states. But states would then allocate the funds to non-profit organizations, which would distribute the money to the parents of low-income students who attend schools that have failed to meet NCLB’s achievement targets. Parents could use the money to cover the cost of academic after-school or summer programs.

Jodi Grant, the director of the After School Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in a statement that “the proposal converts the very successful 21st Century initiative to a risky and unwise voucher program.”

The proposed shift would “pull the rug out from under quality programs that are currently serving families in need,” Ms. Grant said, since programs that now receive grants for three to five years would no longer be able to depend on a steady source of funding.

Restoring Reading First

As announced by Secretary Spellings on Feb. 1, the budget would also seek to restore a significant cut in the fiscal 2008 budget to the Reading First program. Congress slashed the program, which had been financed at just over $1 billion a year for several years to $393 million, a 61 percent decrease.

Lawmakers trimmed the program after a series of highly critical reports over the past 16 months by the Education Department’s inspector general found favoritism for certain textbook publishers and other management problems in the program’s early years.

Still, the program has fans in Congress.

“I am particularly pleased to see that the president’s budget restores funding for the Reading First program, which was slashed despite its proven effectiveness and bipartisan efforts to strengthen the program’s management,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House education committee, said in a statement.

The president’s proposal again targets a number of programs that perennially have been placed on the administration’s chopping block only to be spared by lawmakers. Mr. Bush is again seeking to eliminate the $1.16 billion Career and Technical Education State Grants program. He proposed eliminating the program in fiscal 2007, but its funding was restored by Congress. In his fiscal 2008 proposal, Mr. Bush suggested slicing the program to $600 million, but lawmakers provided $1.16 billion, close to the fiscal 2007 level of $1.18 billion.

The president’s fiscal 2009 request would zero-out 47 Education Department programs, including the Educational Technology State Grants, financed at $267.5 million in fiscal 2008, and the Even Start “family literacy” program, funded at $66.5 million. Mr. Bush slated those programs for elimination last year, but lawmakers funded them anyway, although at reduced amounts. Even Start was cut by 19 percent, and the Educational Technology State grants were cut by about 2 percent.

The budget also would provide increases for other administration priorities, including $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to establish alternative-pay programs. That would be a 105 percent increase over fiscal 2008.

Vol. 27, Issue 22

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