One thing is absolutely clear about the budget request President Bush unfurled last week for the Department of Education. He wants $53.1 billion in fiscal 2004.
But whether that’s an increase or a cut in discretionary spending—and how much of one—isn’t so straightforward. That’s because Congress still hasn’t finished the budget for the current fiscal year, 2003, which began Oct. 1.
At a Feb. 3 press briefing, department officials noted that the president was calling for $2.8 billion, or 5.6 percent, above his request this time last year. That includes sizable increases for some popular programs, like Title I and special education, and freezes or cuts for a host of others. In fact, Mr. Bush wants to eliminate 45 programs. He also proposed a hefty investment in school choice, including private school vouchers.
But in Washington, it’s never safe to confuse a spending request with reality. Lawmakers have a tendency to spend more on education than the president—whether George W. Bush or his predecessor, Bill Clinton—asks for. They also have a hard time slimming down, much less abolishing, individual programs.
This year, moreover, Mr. Bush is in an unusual position. The Senate, home to a narrow Republican majority, thanks to the November elections, approved a fiscal 2003 budget last month that would provide several billion more dollars for the Education Department than the president wants to spend in fiscal 2004.
In other words, the budget he’s calling a net gain for education may not be.
But that’s only if—and it’s a pretty big “if"—the Senate horse-trades the House into a final education figure closer to the upper chamber’s version of the fiscal 2003 budget. The House version is in line with Mr. Bush’s $50.3 billion request a year ago.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Rod Paige—flanked by senior department officials, as well as graphs and charts to help make the budget’s debut appealing—outlined the president’s fiscal 2004 request last week. Mr. Paige emphasized the areas where the department wants to spend more.
“This is a good budget,” he said. “It reflects the president’s commitment to America’s families, and it works to strengthen our investment in our nation’s economic future, one child at a time.”
Mr. Paige also said the department aims to spend money “more wisely.”
“In these times of tight budgets and accountability,” he said, “we can no longer continue to fund programs that simply are not helping students achieve.”
A steady stream of press releases from dissatisfied education groups followed shortly.
“Our state members are deeply concerned about dealing with huge state budget cuts, limited federal increases for a few programs, and cuts to many other programs considered vital for success,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.
More funding is especially needed in light of the bold demands of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, he said.
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill also complained that Mr. Bush seemed to find plenty of room in his budget for income-tax breaks, while providing education figures they deemed insufficient.
‘Looking for a Reason’?
President Bush’s budget plan in many ways is a replay of the one he put forward a year ago. Billion-dollar increases for Title I and special education are back. Proposed freezes return for some other large programs, such as teacher quality and English-language acquisition. (See accompanying table, “The Bush Education Budget.”)
And the cuts are back. But this time, Mr. Bush hopes to put some additional programs under the knife.
He requested $600 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides grants for after-school initiatives. Last year, he asked for $1 billion. The administration cited a new, federally financed study to justify the 40 percent cut. (“Study Critiques Federal After-School Program,” this issue.)
“The decrease in the request acknowledges that the program needs some time to address disappointing initial findings from a rigorous evaluation,” the department says in its budget summary.
Some critics suggested the agency was overplaying certain findings, and downplaying others, to justify its request.
“Somebody was looking for a reason to cut it,” said Judy Y. Samelson, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a national group that advocates such programs.
Meanwhile, vocational education is in for some big changes—starting with a shrunken budget—if the administration has its way. The president’s request is $300 million below the $1.3 billion he asked for one year ago.
The request is coupled with plans, still in the formative stages, that the Education Department has for this year’s reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. The agency wants to replace vocational education state grants with a new “secondary and technical education” program.
The idea, according to the department’s budget summary, is to shift funding from “traditional” vocational education to a new focus on supporting academic achievement at the high school level and on providing high-quality technical education at the community-college level. The plan would also link grantee funding to “achieving student outcomes.”
“This program was started in 1917,” said Carol D’Amico, the department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “It’s had many years to prove itself, and the results have been very disappointing as it relates to academic attainment,” she argued, as well as high school completion and postsecondary participation and completion.
Some advocates for vocational education expressed misgivings about aspects of the department’s emerging policy plans, and were also troubled by the budgetary implications.
Beyond the proposed $300 million cut, some worry that spending on vocational programs could get further squeezed. That’s because the president wants to allow states to shift the vocational aid to Title I if they wish.
“Given the pressure that states are under to comply with No Child Left Behind, and the costs associated with that compliance, it’s reasonable to expect that states would be looking for any money they can get their hands on,” said Nancy O’Brien, the senior director for public policy at the Alexandria,Va.-based Association for Career and Technical Education.
Ms. D’Amico, the assistant secretary, played down the proposed change. She said that the rules governing vocational grants are already fairly flexible, and that the money currently can be used for high school academic support.
President Bush also wants to scrap 45 department programs.
Last year, he put a long list of initiatives in his cross hairs, and this time added a few more. For instance, he targeted the Comprehensive School Reform Program, which provides grants for low-income schools to enact whole-school reform models, and the agency’s regional education laboratories.
Ending the 45 programs would free up more than $1.5 billion, based on fiscal 2002 levels, for “more effective, higher-priority activities,” the department’s budget summary argues.
But many of those programs have devoted constituencies and considerable support in Congress. The fiscal 2003 spending bill approved 69-29 by the Senate in January is rife with programs Mr. Bush had hoped to discontinue.
That Senate bill could also create other problems for the president. Its overall price tag for the Education Department is $56.6 billion in discretionary spending. (“Education Gets 13th-Hour Cash Infusion in Senate,” Jan. 29, 2003.)
The Senate figure not only exceeds Mr. Bush’s original request of $50.3 billion, but also comfortably eclipses his $53.1 billion request for fiscal 2004.
Secretary Paige said he hopes Congress’ final version of the fiscal 2003 spending plan will hit the $50.3 billion target. As of last week, House-Senate talks were ongoing, and a final package is expected shortly.
“The closer they can get to that in the conference committee, the better it will be for us,” Mr. Paige said.
The president’s 2004 budget revisits other familiar terrain for Mr. Bush as well: school choice. The overall budget contains an estimated $756 million specifically for choice initiatives.
Perhaps the most controversial item is a $75 million request for a new “Choice Incentive Fund.” It would make competitive grants to states, school districts, and community-based organizations for school choice, whether for public or private schools. Department officials said they intend to reserve a portion of the money for the District of Columbia.
A New Day?
It’s hard to know what the fate of vouchers—long a political hot-button issue—will be this year. Supporters’ case may be helped by having Republicans now in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as by the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year affirming the constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program.
“A pilot program could probably make it through,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “Anything more than that, I’m extremely skeptical of.”
One GOP observer of Washington education policy, who asked not to be named, was more pessimistic.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “Republicans control the Senate, but that doesn’t mean they have the 60-vote majority necessary” to force a final vote. He noted that when the Senate considered a voucher initiative during the No Child Left Behind Act debate, “there were quite a number of Republicans in the Senate who voted against it, ... not just your usual cast of moderates.”
If the president fails to get money for his Choice Incentive Fund, he also has a Plan B: promoting choice through the tax code. He reiterated his proposal from last year to offer refundable tax credits of up to $2,500 for tuition, fees, and transportation costs incurred when parents transfer a child from a low-performing public school to another public or private school.
The White House assumes a cost of $226 million for that policy, which would be administered by the Department of the Treasury.
Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, lashed out at those plans.
“It is particularly unconscionable that the president’s budget proposal includes hundreds of millions of dollars for unproven voucher and tax-credit schemes, but inadequately funds the No Child Left Behind Act,” she said in a statement. It would be “nearly impossible,” she maintained, for schools to fulfill the law’s mandates without more money.
Her critique prompted Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to issue a rejoinder.
“Let me make sure I have this straight,” he responded in a news release. “The president of the United States proposes a budget that gives the Education Department the largest dollar increase of any domestic Cabinet agency— increasing overall federal education spending by billions of dollars, in the midst of a war and a struggling economy—and he is attacked by education lobbyists for ‘shortchanging’ education?
“Give me a break.”