Jousting Continues Over Budget Increase for Education

By Alyson Klein — November 12, 2007 4 min read
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Congress gave final approval last week to a bill that would boost spending for the Department of Education and set up a showdown with President Bush, who has pledged a veto because the measure contains more money than he requested for education, health, and labor programs.

The bill includes $60.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department for fiscal year 2008, which began Oct. 1. That would be a 5.5 percent increase over the $57.5 billion education programs received in fiscal 2007 and 8.3 percent more than the amount President Bush requested.

Early in the week, the House approved the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education as part of a legislative package that included a measure financing military-construction projects and veterans’ programs, which President Bush supports. Democratic leaders were hoping that pairing the two bills would make it difficult for the president to veto the bill, because it would mean delaying money for veterans’ programs. The vote was 269-142 on Nov. 6.

But Republicans in the Senate used a procedural maneuver to separate the two measures. The Senate then voted 56-37 on Nov. 7 to approve the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill as a stand-alone measure. Because both chambers must pass the same version of a bill before it can be sent to the president, the measure was returned to the House, which approved it Nov. 8 by a vote of 274-141.

Impact on NCLB Renewal

The bill “includes an irresponsible and excessive level of spending,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement released Nov. 6. OMB asserted that the president’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal, released in January, would have represented a 41 percent increase in funding for programs authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since President Bush took office. The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 and signed by the president in early 2002, is the latest version of the ESEA.

“These reforms and resources are having an impact,” OMB said.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the president’s intention to veto spending increases for Title I and other programs vital to the implementation of the NCLB law demonstrates that Mr. Bush isn’t serious about working with Congress on a reauthorization of the law.

“President Bush sharply reduced the prospects for good faith, bipartisan negotiation over” the reauthorization, Rep. Miller said in a Nov. 7 statement. “The president ... thinks he can have his education legacy on the cheap. He is profoundly mistaken.”

Rep. Miller also admonished the administration for what he characterized as an unwillingness to consider common-sense changes to the law, which is undergoing renewal efforts in Congress that have stalled for this year.

“President Bush’s only real involvement this year in developing a new education bill has been to make an occasional speech urging Congress to stay the course,” Rep. Miller said in the statement. “That has been counterproductive given how clearly unfair and inflexible the law is.”

Lauren Maddox, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for communications and outreach, called Mr. Miller’s statement “all windup and no delivery, as they say in baseball.” She said the administration unveiled its reauthorization blueprint in January, but Rep. Miller has yet to put forth a formal NCLB renewal bill.

Last month, Congress extended funding for most federal programs at fiscal 2007 levels until Nov. 16, and lawmakers were expected to approve another stopgap measure that would continue the funding to mid-December.

If lawmakers and the administration can’t agree on the regular spending bill, education programs could be financed through a similar extension measure for the rest of fiscal 2008.

‘Reading First’ Cut

The Labor-HHS-Education spending measure headed for approval in Congress last week was crafted by a conference committee, composed of House and Senate negotiators, which reconciled two different versions of the bill approved by the House and the Senate.

The conference measure includes $14.3 billion for Title I grants to districts, an 11.7 percent increase over fiscal 2007. The administration had proposed $13.9 billion for Title I, but wanted more of the money geared toward improving high schools; the conference report does not target the money to high schools. The measure would also allocate $11.3 billion for grants to states for special education, a 4.6 percent hike over fiscal 2007.

But the measure would slash one of the Bush administration’s priority programs, Reading First state grants, from $1 billion in fiscal 2007 to $400 million this year. Reports by the Education Department’s inspector general over the last 14 months essentially supported complaints that federal officials appeared to favor the use of some commercial programs, and discouraged others, during the implementation of Reading First.

Conferees stuck closer to the House’s larger proposed reduction for the program. The House’s July bill would have cut Reading First to $353.5 million, while the Senate in October proposed funding the program at $800 million.

In its statement condemning the conference spending bill, the administration singled out Reading First as an example of an effective program Congress has slated for reduction. “Low-income students enrolled in Reading First schools posted an 11-point improvement in reading proficiency,” OMB officials wrote in the statement. “Congress has chosen to reward this program with a 61 percent cut in funding.”

The spending measure also includes language aimed at preventing further conflicts of interest at the Education Department. It would require the secretary of education to develop a procedure to determine whether department employees have a potential financial interest in a product or service purchased using department funds.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Jousting Continues Over Budget Increase for Education


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