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.

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