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EDUCATION BUDGET RECEIVES CHILLY RECEPTION IN SENATE HEARING: Education Secretary Defends Spending Cuts as Necessary

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"The programs you make funding decisions for are discretionary, and you don't have much room to maneuver."

When the president’s budget was first released on February 6, Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) made his displeasure with it well known. “The President’s FY07 budget proposal is going to require substantial modifications by the Congress,” he said at the time. “It is scandalous to provide insufficient funding for our Nation’s two greatest capital investments: health and education … I have already notified my colleagues, including leadership, that I will not support any budget resolution that does not provide adequate funding for domestic discretionary programs with special emphasis for my subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.”

On March 1, Chairman Specter and other members of the Senate Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee had a firsthand opportunity to question U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings about the president’s education budget. Considering that “scandalous,” “insufficient,” and “simply underfunded” were some of the many derogatory terms that subcommittee members used to describe the education budget, it’s clear that the chairman is not alone on the committee in feeling that the budget has serious flaws.

Defending the budget, Spellings acknowledged that the committee had a “very tough job ahead” in determining which programs to fund. “The programs you make funding decisions for are discretionary, and you don’t have much room to maneuver,” she said. “At the same time, as policymakers, we must focus on results. We’ve looked at data to see what policies are working for students and where we can save taxpayers money or work more efficiently by eliminating and consolidating less effective programs.”

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, took the secretary to task over a budget that, in his opinion, took several steps backward in its funding for education programs. “A budget is a moral document, and the President’s budget flunks the most basic moral test,” he said. “It calls for literally hundreds of billions in additional tax cuts, with the lion’s share going to those making more than $1 million a year. And it calls for deep cuts to programs that our most vulnerable citizens depend on for their very survival.”

Harkin also seemed incredulous that the administration was serious in its recommendations for education programs. “Would you like to see the budget passed as it was sent up?” he asked. “Does the president want it enacted just like this?” Secretary Spellings began a response, which Harkin interrupted to ask for a yes or no answer. Seeming somewhat flustered, the secretary ultimately responded with a “yes.”

In discussing the president’s American Competitiveness Initiative, Harkin expressed concern that the programs would only benefit “rich kids.” “What about competitiveness for kids who qualify for Pell Grants?” he asked. He also noted that the president’s $1.5 billion High School Initiative is more than offset by $2.15 billion in cuts to programs that have traditionally benefited high school students, such as GEAR UP, TRIO, Smaller Learning Communities, Tech-Prep Education State Grants, and vocational education.

Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) also chose to focus on some of the programs that would be cut under the president’s proposed budget. In particular, Kohl asked how the president could eliminate funding for vocational education after the U.S. Senate sent him a “clear message” of support for the program with its 99 0 vote to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act just a few months ago.

In her response, Secretary Spellings said that poor and minority students, who are largely targeted by Perkins, GEAR UP, and TRIO, are only graduating at a 50 percent rate. She said this fact served as evidence that these programs were not working in many areas. In places where these programs were working, she said, states could choose to fund them with money from the $1.5 billion high school block grant program.

In a brief respite from the negative, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) thanked Secretary Spellings for the department’s work in assisting students who were displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She called the joint efforts between the U.S. Department of Education and the State of Louisiana a “model of partnership” and said that Louisiana would be in much better shape than it is today if every department had worked as reliably.

However, Landrieu also called the education budget “disheartening and wholly inadequate.” She mentioned that she had been at an event for the National Guard Youth Challenge the night before and learned that more than 3 million kids ages 16 to 24 did not have a high school diploma. She said that “education budgets like this one” and tax cuts were to blame. “This is what is paying for these tax cuts,” she said. “It’s too heavy of a price to pay … Tax payers don’t get a break, they just pay for it in more expensive ways.” She named the criminal justice system and mental health services as examples.

At the end of the hearing, Senator Specter called attention to The Silent Epidemic, a new report from the Gates Foundation (see p. 3), and asked Secretary Spellings what in the education budget was targeted to help students who were dropping out of high schools. Spellings explained that many of these students drop out of school because they do not have the reading and “deciphering” skills that they need to understand material in rigorous courses. She cited the president’s $100 million request for the Striving Readers program, which was created to improve the literacy skills of teenage students who read below grade level, as well as increased funding for the Advanced Placement program and dual enrollment programs that can help increase the rigor and relevance of high school work.

Spellings’s statement is available at http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2006/03/03012006.html.

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