Head Start, college tuition aid, and a new reading program would be big winners under the recent budget agreement between Congress and the White House, but the plan wouldn’t show President Clinton’s $5 billion school construction initiative the light of day.
The deal announced May 2--which would give $35 billion over five years in higher education tax relief alone--generally drew bipartisan praise. Republicans last week cheered its plan to balance the budget by 2002, while Democrats were relieved that most of Mr. Clinton’s education initiatives had survived. And nobody was unhappy with the Congressional Budget Office’s pre-agreement discovery that it had underestimated future tax revenues, opening up a more than $200 billion revenue windfall over five years.
“This budget meets my goal of making education America’s number-one priority on the edge of the 21st century,” President Clinton said last week.
But the agreement is merely a first step. House and Senate negotiators still must write detailed budget legislation. Most education lobbyists are anxious to see final figures and worried that proposed increases for higher education would diminish hope for large-scale increases for elementary and secondary programs.
Marshall Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said the agreement was a good sign of where funding would stand later this year, after congressional appropriators divvy up spending for fiscal 1998, which begins Oct. 1.
“Basically, we got what we asked for,” Mr. Smith said in an interview last week. “A major part of our request will be honored.”
The proposed increases are a welcome change from the past two years, when Republican leaders threatened to drastically cut federal spending for education.
“The fact that there is an agreement to boost education funding is very positive,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of education groups. But “the devil’s in the details,” he added.
Construction Aid Out
Under the agreement, enrollment in the Head Start preschool program for poor children would increase by 200,000 to 1 million youngsters by 2002. The measure also would provide $16 billion to $17 billion for a new children’s health program that would extend insurance coverage to 5 million children by 2002, according to the White House.
But one of President Clinton’s pet programs, the proposal to spend $5 billion in federal money to pay interest on school construction bonds, was abandoned during the negotiations. (“President’s School Construction Plan Debated,” March 19, 1997.) Democrats in Congress have vowed to work to restore the funds.
Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, called the missing construction aid an “absolute travesty.”
“I cannot believe they couldn’t find $5 billion for a problem of this magnitude,” Mr. Simering said. The General Accounting Office says the nation needs to spend $112 billion to renovate school buildings. Mr. Simering’s organization represents large, urban districts, many desperate for federal help for their crumbling infrastructures.
On the other hand, America Reads, another favorite of Mr. Clinton’s, is included in the budget agreement. The program would allot $260 million for fiscal 1998 to put 1 million reading tutors in the nation’s schools. It has been criticized by Republicans and some researchers who say federal money would be better spent on training for teachers already in the classroom. (“Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned,” Feb. 26, 1997.)
College Aid In
Perhaps college-bound students and their families received the best budget news. The agreement would allot $35 billion in tax breaks over five years, pushing President Clinton’s Hope Scholarship proposal closer to reality. Mr. Smith said some Republican proposals, such as allowing tax-free college-tuition investment accounts, would also likely be part of a final plan. The maximum annual Pell Grant would grow from $2,700 to $3,000.
Mr. Kealy said the Pell Grant increases total $1.7 billion per year, a large chunk of the $3.2 billion increase allotted for discretionary programs in fiscal 1998. Congressional appropriators will decide the fate of other discretionary school programs, such as Goals 2000, charter schools, impact aid, special education, and bilingual education.
There is speculation that appropriators might not finish their jobs by the end of fiscal 1997, Sept. 30. Legislation under debate last week would fund the government at 98 percent of its current level if negotiations extend past that deadline.