It’s really a matter of simple math.
President Bush wants to fashion several new education programs this year, including pricey items central to his oft-touted high school agenda. But he also is proposing for the first time since he entered the White House to cut the overall budget of the U.S. Department of Education.
So, if Mr. Bush is serious about reining in the agency’s spending, something’s got to give.
And he’s asking Congress to give up a lot—48 line items, to be exact. That’s how many of the department’s programs the president wants to put out of business to make room for his priorities. This is not the first time Mr. Bush has sought to abolish a raft of education programs; he’s tried repeatedly, but lawmakers from both parties have largely foiled those efforts.
Among the items on the chopping block this time are funds for education technology, vocational and technical education, arts education, and state grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program.
Overall, the president’s fiscal 2006 budget request would reduce the Education Department’s discretionary budget by $530 million, or about 1 percent, to $56 billion. The last time the agency’s budget actually shrank was a decade ago, during President Clinton’s administration.
Some lawmakers, including key Republicans, have made clear they’re not interested in Mr. Bush’s idea of shifting $1.3 billion in vocational and technical education aid to his high school agenda.
“I would hate to see the high school program sort of built on the funding back of vocational education,” Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Delaware Republican who chairs the House Education Reform Subcommittee, said last week. “And I don’t think I’m alone in this.”
He predicted that federal lawmakers—as they have before—were likely to substantially rearrange the figures in Mr. Bush’s request before it finally reaches his desk. Indeed, Mr. Castle expressed skepticism last week that the cornerstone of President Bush’s second-term education agenda, expanding high school testing and accountability, would become law this year.
A ‘Disciplined Budget’
The Education Department was one of numerous federal agencies whose budgets were slated for cuts in the budget request that President Bush forwarded to Capitol Hill on Feb. 7. The White House has emphasized that the $2.5 trillion budget package comes in tight fiscal times, as the war in Iraq, homeland security issues, and the president’s stated intention to gradually decrease budget deficits make trade-offs necessary.
“I would call it a disciplined budget,” Mr. Bush said during a Detroit speech a day after announcing his budget plan for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. “My budget reduces spending—reduces spending—on nonsecurity discretionary programs by 1 percent, the most disciplined proposal since Ronald Reagan was in office.”
The budget, Mr. Bush’s fifth, represents the first time he’s sought to cut the Education Department’s overall discretionary spending, which has grown steadily—and in some years rapidly—since the mid-1990s.
But the big hikes of a few years ago have tapered off. In fact, Congress, which typically had raised the final budget above Mr. Bush’s request, last year for the first time provided less than he asked for. The final discretionary number for the Education Department in fiscal 2005, $56.6 billion, was an increase of almost $1 billion over the previous year, or 1.6 percent.
This year, Mr. Bush has especially set his sights on high schools for added focus, and money.
He is asking Congress to provide $250 million to help states meet his plan to require expanded high school testing. He also wants to create a flexible $1.2 billion pot of money for intervening with high schoolers at risk of academic failure. Beyond that, he wants to boost by eightfold the budget for Striving Readers, a middle and high school reading program, to name a few of the biggest-ticket high school items.
Further, he’s called for a new, $500 million Teacher Incentive Fund to help pay incentives to teachers in high-need schools and high-need subjects, such as math and science. And, he’s seeking to carve out an extra $1 billion to increase the budgets for the Title I program for disadvantaged students—the centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind Act—and special education state grants.
“The budget focuses on key priorities of this department and of the president and on getting results,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a Feb. 7 conference call with reporters.
She argued that many of the programs the president wants to shut down have been proved ineffective or are too small to make much of a difference.
“I will tell you that 15 of those are $5 million or less,” Ms. Spellings said of the programs targeted for extinction. “It’s hard to get a critical mass for a national program . . . with small amounts.”
But big or small, members of Congress rarely seem inclined to say farewell to programs.
At a Feb. 7 rally in Philadelphia, Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, vowed to fight Mr. Bush’s plans to eliminate the $307 million GEAR UP program. An acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, the program helps low-income elementary and secondary students prepare for college.
“We have seen it work in every state,” Mr. Fattah said. “President Bush . . . should be ashamed to submit this budget to the United States Congress.”
‘Stay and Fight’
In an interview last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, expressed dismay with Mr. Bush’s request. He and other Democrats have long argued that with the ambitious demands of the No Child Left Behind Act to improve student achievement, the federal government must provide much more aid.
“The fact is, the education budget of the administration is just inadequate to meet the education needs of this nation,” Mr. Kennedy said. “This nation, with a $2.5 trillion budget, ought to be able to afford the kinds of investments in the No Child Left Behind Act, vocational education, and in higher education which are absolutely essential.”
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he has decided to remain as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee for labor, health and human services, and education this year to protect social spending from the president’s proposed cuts. He had been contemplating a shift to a new spending panel on intelligence matters.
“Strong advocacy for education, health care, and worker safety will be indispensable if they are to get their fair share of President Bush’s austere budget,” he wrote in a Feb. 8 op-ed piece in The Washington Post. “Fiscal 2006 looks like an especially tough year, so I’ve decided to stay and fight rather than switch.”
But some members of Congress were more welcoming of the president’s plan.
“I commend President Bush for proposing a fiscally responsible budget that will rein in federal spending and protect our top priorities, such as national defense, homeland security, and job creation,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, a freshman Republican from North Carolina who serves on the education committee, said on the House floor last week.
Although she suggested that lawmakers may differ with the president on some details, Ms. Foxx called the plan a “good first step in the right direction.”
“I am encouraged that he wants to hold federal programs to a firm test of accountability and eliminate programs that no longer serve their intended purpose or perform a vital function,” she said.
Rep. Castle said in an interview that while he opposes some of the president’s proposed cuts, he foresees little, if any, growth in the education budget total beyond Mr. Bush’s request.
“This White House is serious about the numbers,” he said, “so I think if you want to come back and say, ‘Hey look, we’ve got to fund this on education,’ we’ve got to be ready to show what we’re not going to fund this year, unlike a lot of other years.”
One of the most controversial targets in the plan is vocational and technical education.
Mr. Bush wants to redirect the $1.3 billion currently spent on those activities to his new High School Intervention program. The Education Department notes in its detailed budget proposal that the vocational state grants, which account for most of that money, have been rated “ineffective” by the White House Office of Management and Budget for having “produced little or no evidence of improved outcomes for students despite decades of federal investment.”
And yet, many department programs not targeted for elimination haven’t exactly received a thumbs-up. The OMB analysis rated many programs as “results not demonstrated.” For instance, the OMB said of the nearly $11 billion special education state grants that “there is no evidence that this program improves outcomes.”
The new high school program, the Education Department says, would support targeted interventions that raise the achievement of high schoolers, especially those at risk of not meeting state standards. States could still choose to fund vocational programs with that money, though vocational education advocates argue that support for their programs would likely get squeezed out.
Hanging the high school plans on cuts elsewhere may be risky.
Last year, the president tried to cut the vocational and technical education grants by some $300 million, but Congress refused to go along. Vocational programs have some influential friends, from Rep. Castle to Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., who serves on the House appropriations panel.
“This is one of my top issues, and I find it very disappointing that we have to go through the . . . battle again,” Rep. Peterson said in an interview last week.
“We’re trying to send everybody down this academic trail,” he said, arguing that many jobs require technical training.
“We beat it back last year,” Mr. Peterson said of the president’s previous effort to trim vocational aid. “I don’t think they’re going to win that battle.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bush Budget Cuts Ed. Dept. for 1st Time