President George W. Bush’s proposed Fiscal 2006 budget for the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) is leaner than in recent years, though not by much. Bush’s request for $56 billion in discretionary appropriations for the DoE represents a decrease of $529 million, or just under 1 percent, from the 2005 budget.
That slight retrenchment comes on the heels of a 33 percent increase (almost $14 billion) in federal education spending since Bush took office.
Proposed Cuts Assailed
The DoE’s discretionary funds constitute 8 percent of the $514 billion the United States spends at all levels of government on K-12 education. Overall, the U.S. spends more per pupil than any nation except Switzerland. Nevertheless, overall student achievement has not improved greatly over the past decade.
Bush raised some hackles by proposing to terminate 40 education programs that duplicate other efforts or have not proven their effectiveness. If he is successful in eliminating all those (and presidents rarely achieve 100 percent success when they target the pork barrel), there would be a savings of $4.3 billion.
But Bush’s intent is not to save those funds but to shift them to larger initiatives, particularly his signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), that seem likelier to achieve results for larger numbers of students.
Among the targets for termination are some programs that critics of heavy-handed government involvement in education have questioned for many years, such as Regional Educational Laboratories and Women’s Educational Equity. Among others on the list are Alcohol Abuse Reduction, Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, Mental Health Integration in Schools, Smaller Learning Communities, and an assortment of vocational education grants.
School Choice Funds Boosted
On the other side of the ledger, school choice fared well among spending initiatives favored by the president. No Child Left Behind requires public school choice when families find their children stuck in chronically low-performing schools. However, most local school districts provide limited opportunities for parents to exercise that choice. The Bush budget proposes these additional reform outlays in response:
- $50 million for a Choice Incentive Fund to build on the groundbreaking federal voucher program for the District of Columbia that won narrow approval from the 108th Congress. This fund would provide competitive grants to states, school districts, and nonprofit organizations that give parents opportunities to transfer their children to higher-performing public, private, or charter schools.
- $27 million to encourage states and school districts to provide public school choice across district boundaries. One of the limitations of NCLB is that it calls for choice only within districts.
- $219 million for grants to 1,200 new and existing public charter schools.
- $37 million to assist charter schools with obtaining credit to buy, lease, or renovate school facilities. Coming up with adequate facilities has been one of the greatest challenges for organizers of charter schools, which are autonomous public schools that receive waivers from school district regulations in exchange for a promise to produce results.
High School Testing Sought
With respect to new initiatives, the main thrust of the president’s budget is to extend NCLB grade-by-grade accountability into high school. NCLB currently requires states to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math, but they have to test high school students only once. The president would require them to test students in both those subjects in grades 9, 10, and 11.
Bush is seeking $250 million to help states develop the high school tests. He proposes spending $1.2 billion to assist states and localities in intervening to help high school students. Another $200 million would go to a Striving Readers Program to help middle and high school students who are still struggling to read.
Approval of Bush’s NCLB blueprint for high school reform is far from a slam dunk. Some congressional conservatives oppose further expansion of federal involvement in education, while many Democrats and school officials contend Washington is not fully funding No Child Left Behind and thus is sticking local school systems with the bulk of the bill.
Unspent Funds Increasing
A report released by the staff of the House Education Committee indicated localities aren’t always using the federal money available to them for education. Last year, states returned to Washington more than $66 million instead of spending it on students and schools. They still have access to more than $6 billion of unused education funds dating back to the Clinton administration, the report said.
With the release of Bush’s budget, “It’s only appropriate that we look back at how the money Congress has already appropriated has been used or not used over the past five years,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH).
The total of federal education dollars unused by states is increasing rather than decreasing, despite frequent complaints about Washington’s stinginess. As of January 2004, states had access to $5.75 billion of unused federal funds. By January 2005, that total had climbed to $6.05 billion.
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.