Congressional lawmakers struck a tentative deal last week on the fiscal 2004 Department of Education budget that would raise spending above the amounts recommended by President Bush. But the agreement failed to mute critics, who say the plan shortchanges schools and college-bound students.
|View the accompanying table, “Pending 2004 Budget for Education.”|| |
Under the spending plan, funding for Education Department discretionary programs would increase from $53.1 billion in fiscal 2003 to $56 billion in fiscal 2004, a 5.5 percent increase.
The spending blueprint for education is bundled into an omnibus appropriations bill that calls for $328.1 billion in discretionary spending for 11 federal departments and several other agencies for fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1. The omnibus plan needs the approval of the full House of Representatives and Senate, though it was unclear last week when that might occur.
Leaders of Congress had hoped to finish the appropriations measure and adjourn for the year by Thanksgiving, but several complicated matters, such as the overhaul of Medicare, thwarted that plan. The House planned to return Dec. 8 to vote on the appropriations, while the Senate said it would come back on Dec. 9. There were some suggestions that the budget matter may not be resolved until January.
A continuing resolution is financing the federal government at 2003 budget levels until the end of January. The lack of final action on the appropriations measure also delays passage of the proposed pilot private school voucher program in the District of Columbia. The voucher plan has been rolled into the omnibus spending bill. (“Revived D.C. Voucher Plan Added to Spending Bill,” Nov. 26, 2003.)
Several major federal school initiatives would receive increased funding through the proposal hammered out last week by a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers. The budget for the Title I compensatory education program would rise by about 6 percent, to $12.4 billion in 2004. Money for special education grants would jump by 13 percent, to $10.1 billion.
Title I money flows to schools and districts with high percentages of students from low-income families. Schools and districts in that category that do not make academic progress over time face increasingly stringent penalties, under the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Across the country, state and local school officials have complained that the sweeping No Child Left Behind law has heaped higher costs on districts under pressure to meet academic requirements, without giving them sufficient funding. Republicans in Congress, however, said the 2004 budget measure, like earlier congressional spending plans since President Bush took office nearly three years ago, showed a strong commitment to making the law work.
“It is a major increase in education, at a time when most other federal programs are being level-funded or cut,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act being signed into law,” he said, “the federal government is now spending more on education than ever.”
But others said the amounts provided for programs such as Title I and special education would do little to help financially strapped schools.
“We’re just low-balling the amount needed in local school districts,” said Mary Kusler, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. “We don’t really feel Congress is delivering on its promises to local schools.”
Bringing Money Back
Several critics also pointed to the pending omnibus plan’s inclusion of an across-the-board reduction of 0.59 percent to all funded programs, a common tactic used by federal lawmakers trying to cut spending without singling out specific items. Programs that appear to be level-funded, the critics said, would in fact be taking a hit.
“It’s not really a satisfactory way to do it. It’s an expedient way to do it,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington umbrella organization that lobbies for increased federal aid for education. “They simply ask everybody ... to tighten their belts.”
Despite the roughly half-a-percentage point trims, the budget plan would restore funding for several programs targeted for cuts by President Bush’s proposed budget.
Vocational education, which the president had proposed reducing from $1.3 billion to $1 billion for this fiscal year, was restored to the higher funding level by lawmakers.
“Rejecting a 25 percent cut says loud and clear that Congress values vocational education,” said Christin M. Driscoll, a senior director for the Association of Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va.
The House and Senate conferees also agreed to fund federal after-school centers at $1 billion, roughly $405 million more than Mr. Bush had requested. They proposed giving the federal rural education program about $169 million—$1 million more than in fiscal 2003—after the president’s budget had suggested zeroing that program out.
Yet Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, accused Republicans of misplaced priorities in supporting tax cuts backed by the Bush administration rather than more money for schools.
The administration “will trumpet this bill by saying that they are spending more money on education than at any time in history,” Rep. Miller said in a statement. “And once again, I would say that is a meaningless standard. The fact remains that the president is failing to follow through on his promise to fund historic education reforms.”
Mr. Miller noted that while the conference committee’s budget plan proposes to increase funding for Pell Grants from $11.3 billion to about $12.1 billion in fiscal 2004, the plan would keep the maximum award level for aid to needy students at $4,050.
The budget plan also includes language that would suspend a controversial regulatory change, proposed by the Bush administration, that Democrats claim would deny eligibility to 84,000 Pell Grant recipients.
But Mr. Schnittger said Democratic complaints about Pell Grants amounted to “blatant hypocrisy.” The 2004 congressional budget proposal pours money into covering a funding shortfall in the Pell program, he said, an act of fiscal responsibility.