The federal budget plan that emerged from House-Senate negotiations last week assumes billion-dollar spending increases for the two biggest K-12 programs next year, just as President Bush requested.
At the same time, lawmakers backed away from Senate language to secure nearly $4 billion to eliminate a Pell Grant shortfall.
The House managed to squeeze the $2.4 trillion blueprint through on a largely party-line vote of 216-213 on May 20. But its fate remains uncertain in the Senate, where several Republican moderates have said they would join Democrats in voting no.
Those Republicans opposed to the fiscal 2005 plan have argued against provisions for tax cuts in the face of high budget deficits.
A summary accompanying the Republican-drafted budget blueprint said it would provide “sufficient funding to accommodate increases consistent with the president’s budget” for the Title I program for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education.
That would mean $1 billion more for each, with Title I climbing to $13.3 billion, up 8 percent, and special education climbing to $11.1 billion, up 10 percent.
Beyond that, the budget resolution, which guides congressional tax and spending decisions later in the annual process, provides little detail about education spending. Regarding the Pell Grant financial-aid program for low-income college students, it offers vague language stating that federal lawmakers “will continue to work with the Appropriations Committee and other interested parties to ensure it is a financially sound and robust program.”
Overall, the budget plan assumes a $2.9 billion increase in discretionary spending for the federal budget category that includes education, training, employment, and social services. With $2 billion of that eaten up by Title I and special education, that would leave less than $1 billion to raise spending for a vast array of other programs. The document makes no mention of cutting spending for education or other programs in that budget category.
Still, such figures really amount to a nonbinding signal of political priorities. Congress must pass separate spending legislation to lock in specific funding levels for federal programs.
“This is not a perfect budget, and I dare say my friends on the other side will remind me of that time and time again today,” Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said on the House floor last week. “But it is what is doable at a time of extreme circumstances in our nation’s history.”
Indeed, House Democrats blasted the budget for a variety of reasons, including its target for education spending.
“For education, No Child Left Behind is already dramatically underfunded, and this budget will continue this disgrace,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., said of the main federal law in precollegiate education. “We cannot leave the states to pick up the tab for this federally mandated program.”
Democrats have long charged that President Bush has failed to request spending for key education programs at the levels authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that contains a raft of new mandates on schools’ accountability for student performance.
But a senior House Republican contends that argument is hypocritical, given the education spending proposed in a budget alternative offered by House Democratic leaders earlier this spring.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, noted that the Democratic alternative would have fallen at least $5 billion short of the authorized level for Title I, the centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind Act. The plan promised to spend $2.1 billion more in fiscal 2005 for education and training programs than the original House Republican proposal.
“These Democrat attacks are a shameless distortion of the facts, and Democratic leaders should be held accountable for using rhetoric that doesn’t square with their actions,” Mr. Boehner said in a press release last week.
Some advocates for the Pell Grant program were disappointed that budget negotiators dropped language from the original Senate version of the budget resolution that called for a one-time infusion of some $3.7 billion in mandatory spending to shore up the program. “Mandatory” spending is not subject to the annual appropriations process.
Cynthia A. Littlefield, the director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, based in Washington, argued that eliminating the shortfall would make it far more likely that Congress would raise the maximum Pell Grant award, which has been set at $4,050 for several years now.
“Everybody just keeps passing the buck,” she said, “and the bottom line is we still don’t have the shortfall taken care of.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Budget Blueprint Would Boost Title I Aid