Bush's Education Budget: 'A Mixed Blessing'

The President's Spending Proposals

At a time when the United States government is buckling under the strain of massive budget deficits, President Bush is having a difficult time as the self-proclaimed "Education President."

Bush was widely praised for the national education goals he set in his State of the Union Address on January 31. In his speech, he said that by the year 2000, he hopes to improve the adult literacy rate, increase the high school graduation rate to 90 percent and, more generally, make American students once again the best educated in the world.

But while few quarrelled with those goals, Bush's budget, delivered to Congress two days before his speech, did draw criticism from concerned legislators, lobbyists and educators. They claim that despite his appealing calls for a "renewed commitment to excellence" in the nation's schools, the current administration, like its predecessor, is not spending enough money to match the rhetoric.

Immediately following the address, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, issued a statement praising Bush's goals but saying "the President is continuing the misguided policy of the Reagan Administration of reducing education funds. Education needs less lip service from the White House and more resources."

And Harvard's president, Derek C. Bok, says that "without any plan or any funds or anything tangible to suggest how [these goals] could be achieved, it is hard not to come away with the impression that this is simply political rhetoric on this subject."

Bush's proposed budget has provoked criticism for its modest commitment to education spending overall and for its lack of attention to specific programs.

The administration has called for a $500 million increase in spending on education, which would raise the Education Department's budget to $24.6 billion. But a small two percent increase, critics say, falls short of the 4.5 percent rate of inflation predicted by the Congressional Budget Office.

Group representing the nation's principals, researchers and teachers have responded negatively to the Bush budget. The Committee on Education Funding, a coalition of more than 100 national educational organizations, condemns what it considers unsatisfactory increases in education spending. Recently, the committee called for a doubling of the education budget, according to its executive director, Susan Frost.

Frost says that the deceptiveness of the Bush budget can best be seen by comparing spending proposals for education with those for defense. In defense, Bush calls his plans to slow spending growth to two percent a reduction. In education, however, he calls the proposed two percent growth an increase, Frost says.

"You're asking education to do more with less," says David Merkowitz, spokesperson for the American Council on Education. "We didn't ask Savings and Loans to do more with less," he adds, referring to last year's passage of a plan to salvage the bankrupt Savings and Loans industry.

Legislators have also responded to the modest spending increases that Bush has proposed in education. Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, expressed disappointment with the administration's proposals. Hawkins favors a plan to double the budget for education, according to members of his staff.

But officials at the Education Department offer a different analysis of the Bush budget. They say that because of budget constraints, the government cannot spend as much as it would like to on education. They also point out that the federal government has traditionally played an insignificant role in funding education when compared to the roles of states and local communities.

"I really think this is a damn good budget program. It's a hold-the-line budget... [Critics of the Bush budget] seem to think that the government can dole out money without any control," says Mahlon G. Anderson, spokesperson for Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavasos. "The easiest thing to say about helping education is to throw money at it. We believe that is wrong."

Anderson acknowledges that a primary reason for the overall modest gains in the Bush education budget stem from the strong desire--shared by the administration, members of Congress and the public--to cut the budget deficit. "These are very lean and mean financial times," he said.

Slashing Student Aid

The President's emphasis on elementary and secondary education over higher education has prompted many, like Merkowitz, to call the Bush spending initiatives a "mixed blessing."

Despite the increases called for in areas such as education for the disadvantaged and adult literacy, even the budget's strongest supporters admit that it calls for only minimal increases in--and in some cases, the complete elimination of--post-secondary financial aid programs.

The Bush budget would slash completely the State Student Incentive Grant (SSIG) program--which currently receives approximately $59 million from the federal government--and would eliminate federal contributions to the Perkins Loan Program--which gets about $159 million. In addition, the administration would freeze spending on Supplemental Grants and College Work-Study programs.

Bush has said that both the SSIG and Perkins Loans programs no longer need federal assistance.

Opponents of the President's budget charge that Bush is continuing a trend set by former President Ronald W. Reagan to replace grants with loans as a means of student assistance in higher education.

Although the administration proposes to increase its allotment for Pell Grants to more that $5 billion, critics say that the current budget proposal actually underfunds the grant program.

Merkowitz, who calls the student aid portion of the budget "very disappointing," says much of the increase in funds in Pell Grants will go toward covering last year's shortfalls in this program. Funding for Pell Grants was slashed when the automatic spending cuts mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act came into effect after the budget did not reach its deficit-reduction goals.

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chair of the House Post-secondary Education Committee, said in a statement that because more than two-thirds of the increase in Pell Grants will go to cover these shortfalls, very little funding will be used for new grants.

Also, critics of the Bush plan, like the American Council on Higher Education, point out that the administration intends to keep the maximum Pell Grant at $2300 for the third straight year, resulting in an overall nine percent decrease in purchasing power for students.

Williams, who says the average Pell Grant will fall from $1482 this year to $1443 next year, considers the budget "a study in sleight of hand."

Besides the criticism caused by Bush's proposals for Pell Grant spending, the administration's intended reduction of Guaranteed Student Loans by more than $700 million has also prompted skepticism of Bush's commitment to more accessible higher education.

But supporters of the budget justify the reductions in loan programs by relying on a predicted reduction in interest rates this year. Anderson says that the anticipated lower interest rates will allow the government to spend less on loan programs and still provide the same amount of aid.

"I don't think that what we're doing will influence anyone not to go to college," Anderson says. He adds that even if interest rates do not decline as expected, federal law requires the government to compensate students with the needed funds.

But many on Capitol Hill are worried that if extra funds are needed, they will come from cuts in existing programs. While Anderson denies that some programs might be cut, others disagree.

"They will have no choice but to fund [a loan program] from somewhere else" through either a program cut or a supplemental appropriation from Congress, according to Saralee S. Todd, special assistant to Hawkins.

Officials at Harvard say the reduction in federal funds available for financial aid will not affect students in the College.

No Effect on Harvard

James S. Miller, director of financial aid, said that although Harvard pays nine of every 10 scholarship dollars, the University will "have to fill the gap" if federal assistance continues to decline.

Aside from student aid, the Bush budget calls for a 200 percent increase--to $15 million--in its endowment for historically Black colleges.

At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., which has a predominantly Black student body, the news of Bush's proposal was met with mixed feelings.

"I think the program goals are commendable, but I would love to see $100 or $200 million," said Richard A. Ammons, vice president for development. "Fifteen million seems like a drop in the bucket," he added.

Ammons said that unlike other aid programs, an endowment permits the spending of only dividends and interest earnings--only a small part of which may be given to a particular institution.

Even the budget's most vocal critics are pleased with the President's proposed spending increases in certain areas such as drug prevention education and adult literacy.

While it is not included in the Education Department's budget, Bush has earned praise for his proposal to increase by $500 million funding for Head Start--the program that provides preschool instruction for disadvantaged children.

At the education summit meeting with the nation's governors last September, Bush hailed the Head Start program, saying that it could help solve the problems associated with American education.

Increase in Research Spending

In other areas of the budget, Bush has proposed substantial increases in the National Science Foundation and AIDS research. This could result in more research grants to Harvard, says John Shattuck, vice president for government, community and public affairs.

While he says he is pleased with Bush's plans to increase funding for mathematics and science education, Shattuck says that the budget is "certainly not a major commitment to remedy the problems of student aid."

Although it is stressed as a top priority by the administration, educational research is still underfunded, says Patricia A. Graham, dean of the School of Education. New initiatives and ideas to improve education--such as school-based management--can only be implemented "if there is enough money to prepare them."

Bush's budget makes only modest increases in educational research and does little to stop the decline in the number of teachers, says Graham. If this trend is unchecked, Graham adds, there will be a massive teacher shortage by the year 2000.

Opponents of the Bush budget say that they anticipate a fight on Capitol Hill over proposed expenditures, particularly student aid. Few observers believe the education portion of the budget will pass the Democratic-controlled Congress without at least some revision.

"I think the 'Education Congress' will put more money into the Education Department," Todd said. "Senate Leader [George J.] Mitchell and House Speaker [Thomas S.] Foley are both on the record for calling for more aid to education."

After the negotiations and budget battles have ended, however, many like Graham agree that whatever emerges from Congress will be "too little, too late."

Major Initiatives in the Bush Education Budget proposed for the fiscal year 1991 .Research, statistics and assessment of education  $122million .Math and science education  $230million .Drug education and abuse prevention programs  $593million .Presidential Merit Schools and Magnet Schools of Excellence  $325million .Alternative certification programs  $25million .Awards for Excellence in education  $7.6million .Endowment grants for historically Black colleges and universities  $15million .National Science Scholarship program  $5million .Bilingual education  $31million .Programs to combat adult illiteracy  $226million .Grants for educating the handicapped  $1.9million .Chapter 1 grants for disadvantaged children  $5million Total request by the Bush Administration  $24.6million