The waiting is over.
Months behind schedule, Congress has finally completed its overdue budget work, handing the Department of Education a raise of about $3.2 billion. That’s 6.3 percent more than last year, and goes well beyond President Bush’s initial request.
At the same time, that appropriation for fiscal 2003, which began Oct. 1, signals a departure from the double-digit increases—percentage-wise—seen the previous two years.
The spending bill is especially generous toward special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students. Lawmakers brushed aside Mr. Bush’s call to eliminate a slew of federal education programs he deemed low priorities.
Hours after House and Senate negotiators wrapped up work Feb. 13 on the omnibus package, the House approved it 338-83 and the Senate passed it 76-20.
The legislation consolidates 11 unfinished spending bills at a total cost of nearly $400 billion in discretionary money. Of that amount, $53.1 billion is dedicated to the Education Department.
‘More Than Enough’?
“This agreement is particularly generous toward education,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “It would provide yet another large increase in federal education funding.”
He argued that the bill provides plenty of money to help states and public schools carry out the requirements in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
“We’re not only providing enough,” he said. “We’re providing more than enough.”
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, expressed mixed feelings about the bill, but said he couldn’t ask people to vote no since it funded many good programs. If Congress didn’t approve it, he warned, the accounts would revert to lower, fiscal 2002 levels.
“That would cripple a lot of programs, including education,” Mr. Obey said.
“Education is a mixed bag” in the bill, he argued, noting that the hikes were smaller than in recent years. “But it is some progress, and I’m pleased to see it.”
In fiscal 2001 and 2002, education spending rose by about 18 percent each year.
Mr. Obey complained bitterly, meanwhile, about the process for developing and passing the bill.
“It’s the biggest backroom deal, in terms of spending, in the nation’s history,” he contended.
For his part, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., said: “The process was not the best, but we’re finally here.”
“There is plenty in this bill that is good,” he added.
Details on spending figures for individual programs remained imprecise as of late last week. Congress added an across-the-board cut of 0.65 percent and, for technical reasons, that cut may be applied differently to some programs.
Not counting that slim reduction, the bill would provide $11.8 billion for Title I, $1.4 billion above 2002. Special education grants to states would see the same level of increase, bringing the total to $8.9 billion.
The general trend of the bill was either to match or augment Mr. Bush’s requests for individual programs. For example, he had asked for billion-dollar increases for both Title I and special education.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he was pleased to see funding beyond the president’s request.
“This White House has the wrong priorities when it comes to education, and Congress is putting funding for our schools back on course,” he said.
And lawmakers seemed in no mood to sacrifice programs altogether. Mr. Bush had proffered a long list of programs to zero out, such as rural education, dropout prevention, and alcohol-abuse reduction. Not only did Congress ignore that list, it increased the programs’ funding in some cases.
For instance, the rural education account rose from $163 million to $169 million, not including the across-the-board cut.
“The president’s budget from a year ago and his [fiscal 2004] budget ... proposed to eliminate funding for a fairly large number of programs,” said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association. “And this bill now, prepared by Republicans, basically rejects those eliminations.”
On the flip side, Congress flatly turned down Mr. Bush’s request for a $50 million demonstration program for both public and private school choice.
Splitting the Difference
It’s been an unusual ride for the budget over the past year. In the Senate, lawmakers bundled 11 of the federal government’s 13 spending bills into one package, then approved it in January.
Meanwhile, the House didn’t get that far. It approved five separate spending bills last year, but never approved the remaining eight, including the one that pays for the Department of Education. And it did not approve its own version of the omnibus package before negotiating with the Senate.
Instead, Chairman Young simply introduced a bill, which became the House starting point.
On the Senate side, education saw a big leap during the January floor debate. Perhaps the most unusual twist came with an amendment offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the education committee.
It added $5 billion for education, but with two catches. First, it imposed an across-the-board cut to all programs in the broad-based bill. Second, the money was in the form of block grants to school districts that could be spent on any number of education initiatives.
Senators entered the conference committee with a $56.6 billion budget for education. The president had wanted $50.3 billion, a level backed by House GOP leaders. In the end, the lawmakers more or less split the difference.
Also, they opted not to dedicate any money for the $5 billion “innovative programs” account of block grants Mr. Gregg had pushed.
Even so, Sen. Gregg praised the bill last week for providing “historic increases for education.”
Mr. Packer of the NEA noted that the bill creates a bit of an awkward situation for President Bush in one regard: It effectively turns his new budget plan for fiscal 2004, unveiled Feb. 3, into a spending freeze for education.
The $53.1 billion total in discretionary spending is roughly the same as he hopes to spend in fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1 of this year.
Overall, the fiscal 2003 spending bill contains about $24 billion for programs authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Excluding the across-the-board cut, other key items include: $1 billion for Reading First, $2.95 billion for teacher quality grants to states, and $1 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
The final budget also contains one ingredient the Bush administration has a special distaste for: so-called pork. While an exact count was not available at press time, the bill appeared to have plenty of “earmarks” for individual projects back in lawmakers’ home districts and states.