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Democratic, GOP Education Plans Differ by Billions

By Erik W. Robelen — March 27, 2002 8 min read
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The education bidding wars began last week on Capitol Hill, as Democrats sought to one-up—or even two- or three-up—President Bush and congressional Republicans. The result is a multibillion-dollar disagreement over how much to spend on the Department of Education.

The House on March 20 narrowly approved a GOP budget blueprint that basically embraces President Bush’s proposals for education in fiscal 2003, the budget year that begins next Oct. 1.

Under the Republican plan, the Education Department would get $50.3 billion in discretionary spending—a $1.4 billion hike, or about 2.8 percent, over the current year. The plan calls for sizable increases for a few top priorities—most notably, $1 billion more apiece for special education and Title I—but envisions freezes or cuts in many other areas.

A day later, the Senate Budget Committee on a party-line vote passed a Democratic plan that calls for an overall department increase nearly five times larger: $6.8 billion. Much of that would go toward enhancing special education and programs authorized under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which President Bush signed with great fanfare in January.

As if that $5 billion- plus gap were not enough to distinguish the parties, two senior Democrats took it up another notch. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, who played a lead role in writing the new education law, told Mr. Bush last week that a $10 billion increase is what’s really needed.

And so starts another budget season in Washington.

This month, the process got under way on Capitol Hill with consideration of the annual budget resolution, a measure that guides action on tax and spending bills. The resolution does not require presidential approval.

Given wide differences between the two chambers’ budget priorities, many analysts predict they will not agree on a joint budget resolution this year, an impasse that would not block the appropriations process later in the year. In fact, the Republican- controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate aren’t even using the same baseline economic assumptions.

Though final decisions on spending will be made in the 13 annual appropriations bills, the competing versions of the budget resolution send clear signals on how the two chambers will proceed during a midterm election year when control of both houses will be up for grabs.

A New Day

Much has changed since this time last year, when large budget surpluses were expected for years to come. With an expensive war on terrorism under way and the country still feeling the impact of a recession, the budgetary outlook is far gloomier. When recent tax cuts and a hearty congressional appetite for other programs are factored in, the potential for a surplus in fiscal 2003 has vanished under the combined weight of both Republican and Democratic priorities.

The clearest consensus is that leaders from both parties support the big spending increases President Bush wants for the military and homeland security. It also seems clear that while some Democrats had misgivings about the federal income-tax cuts approved last year, they will make no serious effort to repeal those cuts.

Plenty of room remains for disagreement on other tax and spending priorities. Education, as usual, is proving a particularly popular issue for argument. And since both parties stood together to embrace the new education law that retooled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Democrats appear determined to distinguish themselves as ready to spend more, much more, than Republicans.

“All these things are very hard. We’ve got to make choices,” Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in an interview last week. “But the president’s budget on education is totally inadequate.”

“Mr. President, we have just stood side by side to demand that our schools ensure that every single child reaches challenging academic standards,” wrote Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller in a March 18 letter. “If we fail to provide greater resources, we will send a very discouraging message about the importance of these reforms and severely diminish their chances of success.”

They note that the president’s proposed $1.4 billion increase for the Education Department would be the smallest in seven years.

The Bush administration and House GOP leaders have sought to put the education portion of their budget into a larger framework. They point not only to the disappearing surplus and new financial demands resulting from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but also to the record growth- high in the department’s budget in recent years. Even without taking inflation into account, that budget has roughly doubled since 1996.

“The commitment to education continues,” Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Select Education Subcommittee, said last week. “This budget builds on that.”

Piecemeal Critiques

Republicans were especially critical of House Democrats, who have opted not to offer their own budget alternative. Instead, during the House Budget Committee debate, they offered a series of amendments, including one to boost education spending.

Rep. Hoekstra said it’s easy for lawmakers to deliver piecemeal critiques.

“If George Miller and Ted Kennedy want $10 billion more, I think Republicans are willing to take a look at it,” he said. “But they at least owe us an explanation of where they would take it from. Will they cut defense spending? Increase deficit spending? ... How much are we going to collect in taxes?”

In fact, it’s not just Republicans who may find it difficult to support a $10 billion increase. That’s $3.2 billion more than Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are embracing.

“I think what we’ve put forward is certainly not as much as some would like, but I think it’s realistic,” said Sen. Conrad, the committee’s chairman. His plan assumes a $2.5 billion increase for ESEA programs, though it’s vague on the details.

It also assumes so-called “full funding” of state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within six years by locking in mandatory spending increases of $2.5 billion each year. Full funding refers to federal payment of the extra cost of educating a special education student under the IDEA. That maximum federal subsidy is pegged at 40 percent of the average per-student cost.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., another key architect of the new education law and a member of the Budget Committee, declined to comment specifically on the education portion of the Democrats’ plan. But referring to their approach overall, he said: “I don’t think the Democratic budget is realistic, period.”

One of the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee with misgivings is Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina. All spending levels—except for defense and homeland security—should be frozen at the fiscal 2002 level, Mr. Hollings said.

“In time of war, we’ve got to sacrifice,” he said.

The House budget resolution seeks $22 billion for ESEA programs, consistent with President Bush’s budget plan, which is $2.6 billion below the Senate Budget Committee’s version. Of that $22 billion, $11.4 billion would go to the Title I program for disadvantaged students; all of the $1 billion increase would be directed at the “targeted” grants formula, which focuses on the highest-poverty school districts.

In addition, the House plan would accommodate a 12 percent annual increase in special education state grants to reach “full” funding within 10 years, though the House budget resolution itself only goes out five years.

Some of the policy assumptions in the House budget blueprint may encounter political difficulties down the road.

For one, the plan assumes enactment of President Bush’s proposed education tax credits at an estimated cost to the federal Treasury of $3.7 billion over five years. That plan would allow the parents of children in failing public schools to receive a refundable tax credit of up to $2,500 to pay for private school tuition. The proposed tax credits also could be applied to transportation costs to attend another public school, or to offset other education-related expenses.

Democrats have pounced on that proposal as simply another version of private school vouchers, and its chances of approval seem slim this year. In fact, Mr. Bush hasn’t exactly been an ardent advocate. Although the idea was in his proposed budget, he has yet to make a big push on the issue.

Another area of contention is the president’s proposal to eliminate 40 education programs. Some of those cuts may not go over well even with Republicans. For example, the $50 million Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress program, targeted for elimination by Mr. Bush, is named for the chief of staff of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

The program awards grants to support physical education activities nationwide. During a hearing this month, Sen. Stevens told Secretary of Education Rod Paige he was displeased with the proposed cut.

Lawmakers and lobbyists said last week it was too soon to know how the debate over education spending will end up, though the level is almost certain to rise above Mr. Bush’s request. After all, the final fiscal 2002 increase was nearly three times what the president originally asked for.

Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said he, too, would like to see an increase above what Mr. Bush has put forward.

Another factor to consider is the congressional elections in November. Education is sure to be a popular topic on campaign trails nationwide.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said she believes her party will reap some political benefit from its position on education spending.

“This will play against [Republicans] in the fall,” she predicted. “Rhetoric is great; funding is everything.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Democratic, GOP Education Plans Differ by Billions

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