While President Bush has played a pivotal role in reshaping federal education policy during his 3½ years in office, in some ways his influence on the federal purse strings is less obvious.
Take overall education spending. The Bush administration often talks about the “historic” spending increases for the Department of Education over the past few years. The budget certainly has risen rapidly—by about one-third since fiscal 2001. But the growth rate would have been far more sluggish had Congress heeded the president’s annual spending requests.
Each year, Congress has provided more—sometimes much more—than Mr. Bush wanted.
If Congress had met his requests during the president’s first three years in office, the department’s discretionary budget would now be nearly $11 billion less than its current level of $55.7 billion for the fiscal year that ends this week.
Likewise, year after year, President Bush has sought to eliminate an array of federal programs, but his batting average is poor. Congress, it seems, has a hard time letting go of programs once they’re created.
This is not to say the president has left no stamp on the federal education budget. He has put considerable political weight behind efforts to increase spending on both special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students, the centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind Act. Both programs have grown substantially. He has also supported changes to the formula for doling out Title I aid that have better focused the money on schools serving large numbers of poor children.
In addition, federal aid for reading—a top priority of the president—has nearly quadrupled, to more than $1 billion a year, since Mr. Bush came into office.
Meanwhile, a few of President Bill Clinton’s favorite programs have disappeared, including a $1.2 billion initiative to repair and modernize school buildings.
A Broken Promise?
Leading Democrats suggest that, if there’s a Bush imprint on education spending, it’s been to hold it back from the kinds of increases they’d like to see.
They have long complained that the president and congressional Republicans won’t back adequate spending levels under the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Bush’s signature education initiative.
Those Democrats note that funding for key programs—especially Title I—is far below the amounts authorized in the federal law. It authorized $20.5 billion for Title I in fiscal 2005, which begins Oct. 1. The president has requested $13.3 billion, an increase of $1 billion over the current year. A House bill passed this month would match that level. A just-passed Senate committee bill would provide $115 million more.
Both Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democratic architects of the No Child Left Behind law, say President Bush has broken his promise on funding it.
“I continue to be a supporter of No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Miller said in an interview this month, “but apparently [the president] didn’t mean it.”
He added, “The fact of the matter is, the money’s not there.”
Republicans reject such criticism. Some have pointed out that Democrats themselves have pushed their own budget plans that, while offering more for education than the Republicans have sought, fall short of authorized levels. They also point out that the amount Congress authorizes for programs is often higher than what lawmakers actually provide.
“My sense is that nclb promised more funding, and the president has more than delivered on that promise,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in an interview last week. “He keeps his promises.”
“I’m mystified by it a little bit,” said Sandy Kress, the president’s former education adviser, when asked about the charge that Mr. Bush broke his promise.
“I was there,” Mr. Kress said, referring to the final negotiations over the law. “Democrats wanted … to see an appropriation. That was their bargaining position.”
He said the two sides went back and forth on what that number ought to be.
“As I recall, it was around $4 billion” above where funding stood at that point, he said. “The whole discussion of that raised eyebrows at [the White House Office of Management and Budget], in the appropriations committees. It was a very unusual thing to do.”
Beyond that, Mr. Kress says he recalls an agreement that spending would continue to climb in future years.
But Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, argues that the amount authorized for key programs under the school law matters.
“These [numbers] were not just kind of pulled out of thin air,” he said. “They were debated, they were analyzed, they were voted on, they were amended.
“While the administration and others have argued, ‘Oh, these don’t mean anything, these are just ceilings,’ …well no, we think these are pretty meaningful.”