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Education Earmarks Get Scrutiny

By Alyson Klein — February 29, 2008 7 min read

Every year, many school districts and other organizations seeking money for physical education equipment, teacher training, and dozens of other projects solicit their representatives in Congress for a little extra federal aid—designated just for them.

Such specific funding proposals, known as earmarks, come at a collective cost for other federal education programs, critics say. The practice diminishes the amount of money available for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, for special education grants to the states, and other programs that have received only small increases over the last several fiscal years, they say.

Districts that ask for earmarks “just don’t think about the whole context,” said Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington,Va. “They think, ‘Oh this is chump change,’ ” and don’t consider how the requests contribute to underfunding for other federal programs, she said.

Education earmarks typically come out of Congress’ appropriations for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Still, recipients of earmarks and many lawmakers defend the long-established practice, saying the money fulfills pressing local needs.

“Some of the criticism I hear of earmarks is that it’s just paying people to pay friends favors and all that,” said Lynn Greb, a recreation coordinator for the 87,000-student Milwaukee school system, which is receiving over $1 million in fiscal 2008 to operate a summer enrichment program largely for low-income students. “But with this program I can see the benefits in action.”

Without the designated funding, she said, the district might have to raise fees for parents and limit program participation.

Both President Bush and the Democratic- controlled Congress have sought to limit—or at least bring more transparency to—earmarks recently. But it’s unclear just how much those actions will affect the number and cost of the projects.

Although there is some disagreement on how to define them, earmarks are generally allotments for pet projects pushed through the appropriations process by members of Congress with little or no scrutiny.

Congress passed a total of 11,737 earmarks in appropriations bills for fiscal 2008, totaling over $16.8 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The Department of Education received funding for 945 earmarks in appropriations and authorization bills, covering $383.3 million out of its $68.6 billion budget for mandatory and discretionary spending this fiscal year. That’s more than the total appropriation for Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities state grants, which received $294.8 million this year.

The office of postsecondary education has the most department earmarks in fiscal 2008: 521, adding up to $158.4 million. It was followed by the office of innovation and improvement, which has 394 earmarks, totaling $156.9 million.

K-12 earmarks in the fiscal 2008 budget range from just under $24,000 for an after-school program run by the city of Newark, Calif., to about $4.8 million for the Iowa Department of Education for the Harkin grant program, which finances school construction.

The program is named in honor of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending.

Cracking Down

Lawmakers have sought to bring more transparency to the process in recent years. Last year, both chambers began requiring members to put their names next to any earmarks they requested.

That change may have had some impact, at least in the short term. The number and total cost of earmarked projects have declined since 2005, according to an OMB analysis. In fiscal 2005, the Education Department received 1,183 earmarks, amounting to $428.5 million, according to OMB.

But the Bush administration is urging lawmakers to go further. In his State of the Union address in January, Mr. Bush said he would veto any bill that didn’t cut earmarks at least in half over last year’s amounts. And he issued an executive order Jan. 29 directing federal agencies to ignore any fiscal 2009 earmarks that aren’t listed in the text of bills. Most earmarks are contained in committee reports accompanying legislation.

But those actions would be unlikely to make much of a difference, said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group. Lawmakers are willing to wait until Mr. Bush leaves office to pass their fiscal 2009 spending bills.

At least one lawmaker appeared undeterred by the president’s threat.

“He can do what he wants. I can’t change his veto message,” Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education spending, said in an interview. “I don’t have any earmarks that I’m ashamed of, that I won’t defend, that I don’t feel have an economic value for the community.”

Rep. Peterson helped secure almost $146,000 in earmarked funds in the fiscal 2008 budget for drafting and automotive equipment for technical programs at the 3,000- student Bradford, Pa., area school district’s sole high school, which offers the only technical education program within an hour’s drive.

Rep. Peterson said the funds will help the high school purchase drafting equipment similar to what’s used at Zippo Manufacturing Co. and W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Co., both based in Bradford.

“To me, that’s a natural, to help a company that needs these type of workers,” Rep. Peterson said.

But critics of earmarks say the problem isn’t the specific programs funded—it’s the totality of their impact on the federal education budget.

“I’m sure they’re all worthy to a certain extent,” said Ms. Kusler of the AASA, which discourages its members from seeking the funds. “It’s not that all earmarks are bad.”

Earmarks may seem to favor certain programs, said Sandra J. Romanowski, the Bradford superintendent, but in her district’s case, “we’re not going to have it every year. It’s just seed money. … Next year, maybe another community gets something that really helps them.”

But some programs, including the Milwaukee summer program, have received earmarks for multiple years.

Members of the appropriations committees, such as Rep. Peterson, and congressional leaders are best positioned to secure earmarks for their districts. Lawmakers in the majority party—right now, the Democrats— typically get more earmarks. Vulnerable members in swing districts also are generally given priority in earmark requests, so that they can use the largess to boost their re-election efforts.

Science of Skating

While school districts and local governments make up the bulk of recipients of earmarks in the Education Department’s innovation and improvement office in fiscal 2008, many are allocated to nonprofit organizations that offer education programs.

For instance, the Girl Scouts of the USA is getting some $239,000 for an initiative to engage girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The Houston Zoo is receiving $95,000 to develop a distance education program for hospital-bound children in the region, which will be housed at the zoo’s new African-rainforest exhibit. And Carnegie Hall, the storied New York City concert venue, will get about $383,000 for its national music education program.

The George S. Eccles Ice Center in North Logan, Utah, received nearly $48,000 to expand its science and physical education program. The nonprofit ice rink partners with local school districts to offer classes on (and about) the ice. Instructors teach students about the health benefits of skating, creative movement, and “the science and physics of skating,” including how the ice in the skating rink is made and how the Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine works, said Elizabeth J. Wright, the program development director.

Ms. Wright said she worked with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the request, which was originally for $150,000. Sen. Hatch’s office did not return calls seeking comment before deadline.

If Congress used the funds to instead increase programs such as Title I, it’s unlikely any of those dollars would make their way to the ice rink, Ms. Wright said.

“Our schools are overcrowded, with very poorly paid teachers. There’s not enough resources,” she said. Federal funding for larger grant programs “wouldn’t get to this extracurricular kind of stuff,” she added. “[This program] give[s] to the kids in a different way.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Education Earmarks Get Scrutiny

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