Education Funding

House Panel Turns Down Bush’s High School Agenda

June 14, 2005 5 min read
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Some of President Bush’s top education priorities—especially his plans for improving the nation’s high schools—are rebuffed in a spending bill making its way through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

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Table: Holding Steady

The House measure, approved by an appropriations subcommittee last week, would inch up the current discretionary budget for the Department of Education by $118 million, to a total of $56.7 billion, or by less than 1 percent, in fiscal 2006. While Democrats were quick to denounce the bill’s education figures, the proposed amount for the department was nearly $650 million more than the president’s request for the coming budget year.

Lawmakers ponied up none of the $1.5 billion Mr. Bush requested for a new High School Intervention program and new high school testing. They also fell well short of his asking price in some other areas, from the Title I program for disadvantaged students to an adolescent-literacy program Mr. Bush hoped to dramatically scale up.

The subcommittee did go along with the president’s plans to create a Teacher Incentive Fund under the spending bill, which covers the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. That program, which Mr. Bush first proposed during his 2004 re-election campaign, would reward effective teachers and offer incentives to attract qualified teachers to high-need schools. But here, too, House lawmakers didn’t come close to Mr. Bush’s request. He wanted $500 million; they have proposed $100 million.

‘Very Tough Decisions’

The spending measure won approval June 9 on a voice vote. Only one of the subcommittee’s 17 members, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat, called out “nay” when it came time to vote, though other Democrats made plain their displeasure with the bill.

The next step for the legislation is action by the full Appropriations Committee, then consideration on the House floor.

“[W]e had to make some very tough decisions,” Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, said at the outset of the panel’s meeting last week. “Every one of these programs touches the lives of people in one way or another. … Our job is to set priorities within the constraints of the amount of money we have.”

Rep. Obey complimented the chairman for his efforts, but blamed the GOP leadership in Congress and President Bush for circumstances—especially the enactment of recent tax cuts—that he says led to the situation.

“[T]his bill didn’t get here by immaculate conception,” he said at the subcommittee meeting. “This bill is here as the direct result of previous actions.”

Mr. Obey highlighted his concerns with federal spending in a variety of areas, including education.

The two largest K-12 programs, both of which have seen relatively aggressive growth in recent years, would get only slight upward bumps under the House bill. Title I would increase by just $100 million, or less than 1 percent, to $12.7 billion. Special education state grants would grow by $150 million, or 1.4 percent, to $10.7 billion.

A Few Cuts

The White House plan, issued in February, would cut overall Education Department spending for the first time in a decade. Mr. Bush’s plan for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1, would lower the agency’s discretionary budget by $530 million, or nearly 1 percent, to $56 billion. The proposal calls for abolishing 48 programs in the department. (“Cuts Proposed in Bush Budget Hit Education,” February 16, 2005.)

President Bush has especially highlighted his new initiatives for high schools. But in a tight fiscal climate, Congress appears unlikely to fund his core priorities there: more testing and a pricey new intervention fund for high schools. Mr. Bush may not have helped matters by proposing to pay for those programs by seeking the elimination of funding for programs under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which has many friends on Capitol Hill.

Not only did the House subcommittee decline to abolish vocational funding—it froze spending at roughly $1.3 billion—but it also did not agree to kill many other programs Mr. Bush targeted, from state grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, to civic education, to the Even Start family-literacy program, to education technology state grants.

Not every education program escaped the scalpel. The House bill echoes Mr. Bush’s plans to eliminate an $11 million program for the education of gifted and talented students, $18 million for foreign-language assistance, and $5 million for dropout prevention.

The creation of a $100 million Teacher Incentive Fund caught the eye of some GOP leaders, who praised the action last week.

“I support President Bush’s call for incentives that reward dedicated teachers who demonstrate success in the classroom,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a June 9 press release.

Promises to Keep?

Democrats spoke at length during the appropriations subcommittee meeting about the No Child Left Behind Act, citing their frustration that funding levels are falling further below those authorized under the law. In fact, a House budget document says total spending for programs included in the federal school law, which it placed at $24.6 billion, would decline by some $800 million next year under the House bill.

Rep. Obey is apparently contemplating a dramatic response.

“I’m rapidly arriving at the point where I think that if we are not going to meet the financial obligations that we indicated the federal government would meet when we passed No Child Left Behind, then we ought to repeal the mandates,” he said. Mr. Obey said he intended to offer an amendment that would do so during the full committee action, which is scheduled for June 16.

Republicans argue that the law’s authorization levels don’t reflect a spending promise, noting that Congress often does not fully fund programs at the levels authorized.

“I want to give members time to think about this before we actually proceed,” Mr. Obey said. “I can nolonger go home and defend No Child Left Behind if we don’t follow up the dollars that we promised to provide.”

Meanwhile, the subcommittee plan would eliminate $23 million in funding for the Ready-to-Learn Television program, which helps fund such educational shows as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards from Buster.” It would also greatly reduce funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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