On February 4, President Bush unveiled a Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 budget that proposes an overall freeze on funding for the U.S. Department of Education. It would eliminate funding for forty-seven education programs and spend $300 million for a “Pell Grants for Kids” program that has been characterized by some on Capitol Hill as a voucher program that would take money away from already-hurting public schools.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings prefaced her annual briefing on the education budget by saying that she wanted to put the education budget in context. She said that the president had several objectives when he crafted his budget: addressing the country’s immediate economic challenges, ensuring sustained prosperity, keeping America safe, ensuring that the budget is balanced by 2012, and addressing the long-term spending challenges that the nation is facing.
Noting that discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education has increased by 40 percent since 2001, Spellings also pointed out increases in the president’s FY 2009 budget for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Reading First, Title I, and special education. She expressed hope that the president’s budget would encourage Congress to reauthorize NCLB and specifically mentioned school improvement and accountability as two issues that were “most pressing.”
In a statement issued that morning, Spellings said that the budget process is “one where we must balance process and priorities and I believe this budget does that for education.” She added that the president’s budget “provides the necessary resources for critical programs that equip American students with the skills they need to compete and succeed in the knowledge-based economy.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill disagreed with Secretary Spellings’s assertion that the budget would provide the necessary resources. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, expressed concern that the president was proposing only to reshuffle existing funding for the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools in a year that Congress hopes to reauthorize NCLB.
“As we work to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, I am particularly concerned that the president has once again proposed inadequate funding for the law’s important reforms,” he said. “He has used the same old tactics of robbing other education priorities to pay for his modest increases for school reform. His budget once again siphons scarce resources from our public schools to create a new voucher program, and he eliminates the existing afterschool program in favor of an $800 million voucher-based alternative. Our schools and children deserve more than accounting gimmicks-they need new resources to make progress on reform.”
Last year, Democrats also opposed the proposed Bush budget, which planned to hold overall discretionary spending to about a 1 percent increase and cut the funding of several departments, including the U.S. Department of Education. Despite their efforts to increase funding for education and other domestic programs, however, Democrats ultimately were forced to pare their alternative proposals to reduce overall spending to a level that the president would accept. Democrats were able to move money around to fund key priorities, such as a $2 billion increase for the U.S. Department of Education, but ended up with an overall total that was in line with the president’s target.
In a statement on the Senate floor on February 4, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) noted the special circumstances that surrounded last year’s budget process and pledged that this year would be different.
“The president had us over a barrel last year on the appropriations bills because we did not want another continuing resolution,” Reid said.1“But he does not have us over a barrel this year because either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama will be the president in less than a year. If we have to deal with a CR next year, we will deal with it. We will finish that by the end of January. … I look forward to working with our colleagues and hope we can do a better job with our appropriations bills than last year. But I repeat, we are not going to be held hostage by the unreasonableness of the White House. I hope we can work together and get some bills passed.”
The president’s education budget did include some additional funding for a few programs, requesting a total of $100 million for the Striving Readers program, a $64.6 million increase over last year, and $100 million for the Statewide Data Systems program, a $51.7 million increase. According to a summary document from the U.S. Department of Education, only twenty-seven states have received funding under the data systems program, and the proposed increase would support new awards to states yet to receive funding, as well as additional awards to currently funded states for an expansion of their K-12 systems to include postsecondary and workforce information. Including this new information would allow states to determine the extent to which students are leaving high school ready for college and employment.
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, said that he was “encouraged” by the president’s proposal to reform the nation’s high schools, especially by its inclusion of “stronger graduation rate accountability and increases for adolescent literacy and statewide data systems.” However, Wise cautioned that freezing funding for the U.S. Department of Education “will not adequately fund the nation’s education challenges nor offer Congress incentive to improve the No Child Left Behind Act.”
A table that compares the president’s proposed funding levels for certain programs that benefit middle and high schools to the totals from last year is available here.
1A continuing resolution (CR) is a temporary funding measure that allows Congress to extend the time to pass spending bills and send them to the president for his signature.