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TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A HEARING ROOM: Congressional Hearing on the Federal Education Budget Previews Two Possible Paths for Spending Decisions

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. "First, educators need proven strategies to strengthen instruction-especially in reading."

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth….

(Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”)

 

“The Road Not Taken” uses a traveler’s journey through the forest to represent the decisions that each person makes in life. During a hearing on President Bush’s budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education on February 26, Frost’s famous poem probably came to more than one mind as Representative David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, discussed the two options facing Congress and President Bush as they begin deliberations on funding decisions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2009.

Just as Frost’s traveler has to choose between two roads, President Bush and Congress must decide between two options for completing the federal spending bills this year. Under the first scenario that Obey described, President Bush and Congress would come to a compromise on funding levels that would allow appropriations bills to be enacted this year. However, without a compromise, Congress would likely postpone action until 2009, when a new president would occupy the White House. Obey said that he preferred the compromise route but added that the path that Congress ultimately follows is “largely up to the administration.”

Secretary Spellings Defends President Bush’s Education Budget

In her testimony in support of the president’s budget, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that developing human capital is a “top priority” in today’s competitive world. However, she added that the federal government has “limited resources to invest” and that its primary role had “always been to serve our neediest students, such as those from low-income families, those with disabilities, and those learning English as a second language.” She then said that taxpayer dollars should be allocated in the “most effective and efficient ways.”

Spellings then discussed the “priority investments” in the president’s budget. “First, educators need proven strategies to strengthen instruction-especially in reading,” she said. “Second, they need resources to help students and schools improve. Finally, they need help to make college more accessible and affordable for students of every background and income level.”

In her testimony, Spellings called education an issue that “unites people of every race and background, from both sides of the aisle, especially as our global economy places greater demands on our schools.” And, as members of the subcommittee questioned Spellings, it quickly became apparent that Democrats and Republicans alike had serious concerns about a budget proposal that would freeze funding for the U.S. Department of Education and cut or eliminate funding for dozens of education programs.

Several members of the committee were upset with the president’s proposal to eliminate funding for career and technical education, includingRepresentatives John Peterson (R-PA)Tim Ryan (D-PA), and Mike Simpson (R-ID), among others. Simpson was also skeptical about the president’s Pell Grants for Kids program and said that it would work as a voucher program and take much-needed funding from public schools. “What do you do for failing schools that the kids leave behind?” he asked Spellings.

In response, Spellings noted that the president’s budget would provide nearly $500 million in school improvement grants, as well as increase Title I funding for high-poverty schools by over $400 million and provide $200 million for a Teacher Incentive Fund that would work to attract effective teachers to the neediest schools.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the federal education budget the “single biggest opportunity” to turn individuals’ lives around and put them on the road to success. Saying that she was glad this would be President Bush’s last budget for education, DeLauro implied that the president’s commitment to education lacked substance and that he was more interested in “posing for pictures” than delivering real resources.

Representative Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) noted that the president’s budget would “sorely underfund” Impact Aid, a program that provides funding to school districts that educate children living on federal lands such as military bases, and eliminate funding for rural education. He also took issue with the budget’s negative impact on the Native American population. “I don’t know what you guys are smoking, but you just don’t get it,” Rehberg said. He added that he voted to override the president’s veto last year and was prepared to do so again this year.1

In response to these and other questions and comments about funding cuts for specific programs, Spellings said that the president had to make “tough choices” and relied on the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to redirect funding from programs that are “ineffective, duplicative, and small in scale.”

Prefacing his remarks by saying that a strong education policy was “akin to a strong national security policy,” Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) took issue with the logic behind the program cuts. He noted that the president routinely proposes to cut programs that are small or ineffective only to create new programs that seem to fit the same criteria.

At the end of the hearing, Obey reiterated his desire for a compromise with the president but cautioned that he would not waste the time of the Congress or of the Appropriations Committee. “Do we want to work things out, or do we just want to wait until the next president will act like an adult?” Obey asked. “We won’t waste time if the president intends to stick by his budget.”

As for which path the president and Congress will ultimately take, only time will tell. Last month’s hearing was but another step in a process that might not be completed until 2009.

Secretary Spellings’ testimony is available at http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2008/02/02262008.html.

Read “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost at http://www.bartleby.com/119/1.html.

1) As passed by Congress last year, the FY 2008 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education appropriations bill would have provided nearly $10 billion more for discretionary spending than the amount included in the president’s budget, including $4.7 billion more for the U.S. Department of Education. Rather than signing the bill, President Bush vetoed it. Hoping that they could convince enough Republicans to vote against the president, the Democratic leadership held a vote to override the veto. Although fifty-one Republicans voted to override, the final vote tally, 277-141, fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority required.

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