The U.S. Department of Education will see its smallest budget increase in nearly a decade under the catchall spending plan approved by the Republican-controlled Congress in a lame-duck session.
For the first time since President Bush entered office, the budget will fall short of his overall request for education funding. The final fiscal 2005 spending plan undercut some of the president’s top education spending priorities, such as the Title I program for disadvantaged students and special education.
And it rejects altogether a few other proposals Mr. Bush talked up on the campaign trail this year, such as his plans to create a $40 million Adjunct Teacher Corps and provide $33 million for Enhanced Pell Grants for low-income students who take rigorous high school courses.
The omnibus measure, which rolled nine uncompleted appropriations bills into one big package with a price tag approaching $400 million, was approved by the House Nov. 19 and a day later by the Senate. It passed the Senate 65-30; in the House, the vote was 344-51.
Republicans insisted on keeping within agreed-upon spending limits that placed severe constraints on the amount of money available for federal agencies. Large deficits and increasing costs from the war in Iraq and counterterrorism measures have helped put the squeeze on spending.
The measure was expected to head to President Bush’s desk soon, but there has been a slight delay as Congress works to undo a provision slipped into the bill that would have allowed some lawmakers to examine Americans’ income-tax returns.
The final budget provides $56.6 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, an increase of $915 million, or 1.6 percent. President Bush had asked for about $760 million above that.
The overall increase is the lowest since fiscal 1996, when the agency’s discretionary budget actually decreased.
Title I received $12.74 billion, about $600 million shy of the president’s request. State grants for special education received roughly $500 million below his request, at $10.59 billion.
One of the items President Bush promoted on the 2004 campaign trail, a new Striving Readers initiative for struggling middle and high school readers, got only about one-quarter of the $100 million he had wanted this fiscal year.
“I am very proud that we held the line and made Congress make choices and set priorities because it fits our philosophy,” the House majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said of the omnibus bill on the chamber’s floor the day of its passage. “You cut taxes, grow the economy, more revenue for the government. You hold down spending and let those revenues catch up; sooner or later we are going to get to balance.”
But many Democrats were of another mind.
“I am deeply disappointed in the figures for education,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said on the House floor Nov. 19. “From kindergarten to college, this legislation disappoints America’s children, its families, and its educators.”
“[P]erhaps the most serious neglect of our responsibilities is reflected in what this bill does on education,” said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, citing cuts in several areas. “Unbelievably, it cuts the president’s request for Title I education funding, the prime mover of education reform.”
President Bush, however, apparently didn’t mind too much that Congress failed to meet some of his funding priorities.
“This legislation is in keeping with my goal to further strengthen the economy by cutting the budget deficit in half over five years,” he said in a Nov. 20 statement, in which he pledged to sign the measure. “With resources already provided to continue to fight the war on terror and to protect the homeland, we have held to the fiscally responsible limits Congress and I agreed to and still adequately funded our domestic priorities like education, health care, and veterans’ programs.”
As is so often the case, the fiscal 2005 budget was completed behind schedule, though it was wrapped up much sooner than the 2004 budget, which was completed in January of this year. The fiscal year began Oct. 1. But the short delay seemed unlikely to have an adverse effect on education programs. Most fiscal 2005 aid for schools won’t start going out to states and school districts until next summer.
Some other aspects of the budget were in keeping with tradition. Lawmakers rejected President Bush’s effort to abolish a host of programs, from money for school leadership and dropout prevention to elementary and secondary school counseling.
The budget also is rife with so-called earmarks, which critics call pork-barrel spending, for specific one-time projects in lawmakers’ home states and districts. The package contains hundreds of such earmarks for education spending alone.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group in Washington, estimates that the omnibus bill contains nearly $16 billion worth of earmarks overall.
Meanwhile, some education lobbyists worked hard to restore funding for the Title V block grant program, a flexible spending source for states and districts to use for a broad array of purposes, ranging from remedial programs to educational technology. The Senate sought to zero out the program, which received $297 million last year, while the House provided just $20 million. (“Educators Lobby Congress to Keep Title V Funding,” Oct. 27, 2004.)
But the aggressive lobbying appeared to pay off, as the Title V program ended up with nearly $200 million.
The spending measure also creates a new program, funded at $25 million, to help states develop statewide data systems to help in complying with the No Child Left Behind Act.
The amount of money for the Education Department was an unwelcome surprise to some lobbyists, as the final totals fell below the levels spelled out earlier in a bill passed by the House, and another passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. (The full Senate never passed the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education before going to a conference committee with the House on the omnibus package.)
“We’re just utterly disappointed,” said Mary Kusler, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “The funding level does not even come close to matching the rhetoric that we heard from all members of Congress coming up to the election.”
She noted frustration in particular with the budget figure for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It falls well below the authorization level set in the renewal of the IDEA that won final congressional passage one day before the spending package. (“Reauthorized IDEA Would Shift Power to School Districts,” this issue.)
“It just goes to show,” Ms. Kusler said, “that the money they ‘promised’ in IDEA is not real money.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as 2005 Budget Drops Below Bush Request