Democrats Aim to Resist Bush Budget

By Alyson Klein — February 07, 2008 9 min read

Democrats in Congress say they are prepared to resist President Bush’s level-funding budget proposal for education until the next president—who they hope will be more inclined to raise spending—takes office. That means the outcome of this year’s budget showdown could hinge on the November election, not on a compromise between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Mr. Bush last week proposed $59.2 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal 2009. His plan includes a modest proposed increase in Title I spending, an effort to reverse a dramatic cut Congress made to the Reading First program, and yet another try for a school choice program that includes private school vouchers.

But Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, made it clear they intend to write spending bills that reflect their own priorities, including boosting funding for programs under the No Child Left Behind Act. They assailed the administration’s proposals to expand private and public school choice and eliminate some education programs popular with lawmakers, such as the $1.16 billion Career and Technical Education State Grants.

“The action [President Bush] took yesterday to slash program after program that children, students, families, and businesses rely on is completely irresponsible and would devastate our country,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said in a statement Feb. 5, the day after the president released his budget plan. “Thankfully, this budget will soon be forgotten, and I will work on making investments in programs that reflect the priorities of the American people.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Feb. 4 on the floor of the chamber that “the president had us over a barrel last year on the appropriations bills.”

In November, Mr. Bush vetoed a bill that would have hiked education spending to $60.7 billion in fiscal 2008, ultimately leading to a late-session compromise on a smaller amount.

Sen. Reid suggested that congressional Democrats will be willing to wait until January 2009 to complete at least some appropriations bills, if they believe Mr. Bush’s successor will be more disposed to fund their priorities.

In the same speech, Sen. Reid singled out NCLB programs as one area where he deemed the president’s budget inadequate.

“I brought the teacher of the year here to watch the State of the Union address,” Mr. Reid said, referring to the 2007 Nevada teacher of the year, Melanie J. Teemant. “She is devastated by what the No Child Left Behind legislation has done, with the president not living up to what he said he would do in funding it.”

But Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, praised the president’s plan for its “commitment to a targeted, highly focused investment in education.”

He cited Mr. Bush’s proposal to increase Title I grants to school districts to $14.3 billion, a 2.9 percent hike over fiscal 2008, and an increase for students in special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to $11.3 billion, a 3.6 percent boost.

Democrats disparaged the Title I increase as insufficient.

The request “is not enough even to keep pace with inflation,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education panel, said in a statement. “The president has made it clear that he intends to end his administration the same way he started it—by breaking his promises to public schools and schoolchildren.”

Working on NCLB

Rep. Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, both said greater funding for NCLB programs is a key priority for the pending reauthorization of the 6-year-old federal law. But they said they will continue to work with the administration and congressional Republicans on renewing the law, despite what they view as an unacceptable funding proposal.

“Congress should reject the president’s budget and deliver the resources necessary to ensure every student graduates ready for success in the global economy,” Sen. Kennedy said in an e-mailed response to Education Week. But he added: “There is bipartisan agreement that we need to build on the positive aspects of the law and fix the problems with it. We should move forward with that process as we continue to work to deliver the resources schools and our students need.”

The Education Budget

Final fiscal 2008 and proposed fiscal 2009 funding for selected programs in the Department of Education:

23budget c1s

Source: Education Week

President Bush’s plan for Education Department spending is part of a $3.1 trillion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, with a projected budget deficit of more than $400 billion. The budget includes an increase for the Department of Defense and new money to stimulate the sputtering economy, but largely level-funds domestic spending.

The proposal for the Education Department seeks to free up funds to help schools that aren’t meeting the goals of the NCLB law by revising a provision that calls for states to set aside 4 percent of their total Title I allocations to be used for school improvement activities. But the provision also includes a “hold harmless” requirement for school districts, meaning that no district may receive less Title I money than it did the previous year because of the set-aside.

Under the administration’s proposal, states could set aside the full 4 percent, even if that meant reducing aid to districts. Twenty-nine states would not be able to reserve the full 4 percent during the 2007-08 school year since Title I dollars have been relatively flat over the past few years, according to a report released in August by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization headed by Jack Jennings, a former longtime education aide to House Democrats.

Scott Frein, the director of advocacy for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, called the proposed move “a step in the right direction” because it could bolster collaboration between states and districts on school improvement. But he cautioned that he was “not necessarily saying that [districts] should receive less money.”

Mary Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va., said the proposal would impede school improvement efforts at the district level.

“If you don’t give schools the resources to turn around, you can’t expect improvement,” she said. “I don’t believe the answer to [increasing] capacity [for school improvement] is robbing districts to pay states.”

The budget request seeks to expand school choice options through a $300 million “Pell Grants for Kids” program, which the president outlined in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. (“Bush’s Latest ‘Voucher’ Idea May Face Same Fate as Others,” Feb. 6, 2008.)

Expanding Choice

The proposal would make competitive grants available to states, school districts, other local governments, and nonprofit organizations to develop K-12 tuition-aid programs for low-income students in schools that are struggling to meet the goals of the NCLB law, as well as those in high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent. Parents could use the money to send their children to out-of-district public schools or to religious or secular private schools.

Last year, in his budget request for fiscal 2008, President Bush proposed expanding school choice through “promise” and “opportunity” scholarships, to have been funded at $300 million. That proposal fell flat with Democratic lawmakers, who lambasted it as a federal voucher program. The Pell Grants for Kids idea, which takes its name from the Pell Grant program for college students, met with similar criticism.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a Feb. 4 conference call with reporters that “with each passing year, kids attend schools that are labeled as underperforming. … I think our responsibility is to provide lifelines for kids that are in those schools. This is one way to do that.”

Building on the idea of expanded choice, the budget proposal also seeks to overhaul the Education Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. The proposal calls for renaming it the 21st Century Learning Opportunities program, and cutting its funding from about $1.08 billion this year to $800 million in fiscal 2009, a nearly 26 percent decrease.

Under the existing program, states receive money through formula grants, which they then allocate to school districts, nonprofit organizations, and other recipients to finance after-school and summer programs, particularly for students attending high-poverty schools.

Under the administration’s proposal, the money would continue to flow from the Education Department to states. But states would then allocate the money to nonprofit organizations, which would distribute it, in the form of scholarships, to the parents of low-income students who attend schools that have failed to meet NCLB achievement targets. Parents could use the aid to cover the cost of academic after-school or summer programs.

Jodi Grant, the director of the After School Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the proposal would make it harder for after-school and summer programs, which now receive three- to five-year grants, to build up their infrastructure and seek volunteers, funding, and other help from their communities.

She said that if the administration succeeds in “turning [the program] into vouchers, it’s going to much less stable.”

Aid for Reading First

As announced by Secretary Spellings at the beginning of the month, the president’s budget plan also seeks to restore a significant cut made in the fiscal 2008 budget for the Reading First program. Congress slashed the program—a top Bush administration initiative, which had been financed at just over $1 billion a year—to $393 million, a 61 percent decrease.

Lawmakers cut the program after a series of highly critical reports over the past 16 months by the Education Department’s inspector general charged that the program’s early years had been marked by favoritism toward certain publishers and by other management problems.

President Bush’s fiscal 2009 proposal targets a number of programs that perennially have been placed on the chopping block, only to be spared by lawmakers. Mr. Bush is again seeking to eliminate the $1.16 billion Career and Technical Education State Grants program. He proposed eliminating the program in fiscal 2007, but Congress restored its funding. In his fiscal 2008 proposal, Mr. Bush suggested slicing the program to $600 million, but lawmakers provided $1.16 billion, close to the fiscal 2007 level of $1.18 billion.

The president’s 2009 request would zero out 47 Education Department programs, including the Educational Technology State Grants, financed at $267.5 million in fiscal 2008, and the Even Start “family literacy” program, funded at $66.5 million. Mr. Bush slated those programs for elimination last year, but Congress funded them anyway, but at reduced amounts. Even Start was cut by 19 percent, and the state technology grants were cut by about 2 percent.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Democrats Aim to Resist Bush Budget

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