A compromise budget plan approved by Congress this month calls for a $3 billion spending hike for the Department of Education next fiscal year.
That level for fiscal 2004 is substantially above President Bush’s request and the House version, which basically would keep the agency’s budget total unchanged from the $53.1 billion in discretionary spending approved for fiscal 2003. But it falls far short of the Brobdingnagian increase the Senate first agreed to in late March.
In any case, the $56.1 billion in discretionary spending Congress backed in the final budget resolution, a 5.6 percent increase over fiscal 2003, is not binding. It’s still up to lawmakers later this year to pass an appropriations bill that spells out specific funding levels for the agency and its programs.
Most Democrats—and a handful of Republicans—opposed the budget resolution, which guides tax and spending decisions in Congress. It narrowly passed the GOP-controlled House and Senate on April 11.
Beyond spending disagreements, tax cuts were a main point of contention in the $2.2 trillion budget plan. The resolution ultimately fell short of President Bush’s request for new cuts and, in an unusual move, the House and the Senate agreed to disagree on the question by about $200 billion for the time being. The House approved the final version of the blueprint, 216-211, in the wee hours of the morning. In the Senate, Republicans needed Vice President Dick Cheney to break a tie, just squeezing the bill out on a 51-50 vote hours later.
“The budget that we have before us today is one that we should all be proud of,” said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., a freshman lawmaker who serves on the House Budget Committee, shortly before the final plan was approved. Among other provisions, she drew special attention to the spending it backs for education.
“What we are doing is, we are keeping our promise on education aid,” she said.
‘Much, Much Worse’?
Not everyone shared that upbeat assessment. On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., found a lot to complain about in the bill.
“The budget that passed the Senate two weeks ago was not a good one,” he said. “The budget which returned from conference today is much, much worse.”
He said he was disappointed to see lawmakers shave billions of education dollars from the original Senate version.
“The Republican leaders who dictated this conference report ignored the education concerns of a bipartisan majority of senators,” said Sen. Kennedy, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
During the initial Senate floor debate in March, the education numbers climbed steadily upward. Several amendments passed adding billions for schools. By the end of the process, the Senate was on record supporting a $8.2 billion increase for the federal agency, or about 15.4 percent. By contrast, the House bill appeared to largely mirror Mr. Bush’s request.
In early February, President Bush unveiled a fiscal 2004 budget request that called for $53.1 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, about the same amount Congress provided for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The president hopes to substantially reshuffle the numbers within that spending total. He proposed increases for some popular items, such as special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students. At the same time, he proposed to cut spending levels for a few big programs, and to abolish some 45 others altogether.
The final budget resolution highlights specific spending levels in just a few areas. It supports a $2.2 billion increase for special education, $1 billion for Title I, and $1.3 billion for Pell Grants for needy college students. It also calls for an extra $50 million for the $1.1 billion impact-aid program, which provides financial help to school districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of federal installations.
With the exception of Pell Grants, all of those budget levels exceed the president’s requests.
Meanwhile, on the mandatory-spending side, the resolution assumes enactment of Mr. Bush’s proposal to increase from $5,000 to $17,500 the maximum level of student-loan forgiveness available to mathematics, science, and special education teachers who work in high-poverty communities.