Toward a Responsible Education Budget
February 18, 2005
The President's FY 2006 education budget shows some signs of moving toward fiscal responsibility. But will this small step for the President be too large a leap for Congress?
The President has pledged to reduce spending and cut the deficit in half by 2009. To that end, his budget eliminates 150 redundant or ineffective programs-including 48 from the 2006 education budget, which total over $4 billion in spending.
Now the question is whether Congress will make spending decisions in line with the reductions proposed by the President. Past experience does not bode well: since 1995, federal education funding has increased 150 percent, and funding for elementary and secondary education and special education programs is at its highest level in history.
In last year's appropriations, a host of special-interest education programs were well funded, and some, like the "Whaling and Trading Partners" program, even received increases. The Women's Educational Equity Act continued to receive funding, though girls equal or surpass boys on nearly every indicator of academic achievement. Members topped off the 2005 appropriations bill with over 1,200 pork projects, including $450,000 for the Baseball Hall of Fame for "educational outreach using baseball to teach students through distance learning" and $25,000 for curriculum development for the study of mariachi music.
Clearly, there are plenty of near-painless cuts that Congress could make-and particularly when states are actually sending some education funds back to the federal government unspent. Though Congress continues to increase the education budget, last year, states sent back a total of $66 million in federal funds because they simply could not spend it fast enough. At the beginning of 2004, states had $5.75 billion in unspent federal education funding that had accumulated between 2000 and 2003, and today this figure tops $6 billion.
With the federal government sending the states more education dollars than they can use, it should be easy for Congress to hold the line on education spending. There are good reasons to do so. Some of the programs the President proposes to cut, like Even Start and the National Writing Project, are ineffective or do not show demonstrable results, according to the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Others are small, special-interest programs with limited impact. Still others, such as those for Alcohol Abuse Reduction, Comprehensive School Reform, and Star Schools, are activities that can be funded through other programs. And a few, like the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program, are just plain ridiculous. In short, there are plenty of education programs that could stand to be cut or merged with other programs.
One reason Congress may have trouble tightening its belt is that while the President has given Members some incentive to control their spending, he has not given them much. Despite the President's proposed program eliminations, his total education budget comes in at just $530 million (in discretionary spending) less than last year's budget proposal, and he has even proposed new programs, including a $1.5 billion package for secondary education.
The budget would also create a new mandatory element in Pell Grant funding. As proposed, spending on Pell would rise $1.3 billion next year, and individual awards would increase by $500 over five years, eventually bring the maximum Pell award to $4,550. While $4,050 of each award will remain in the discretionary budget, the rest will be mandatory spending and come from money "saved" from reforms to mandatory programs and then re-directed to Pell Grants. Past experience has shown that granting a program mandatory or "entitlement" status-essentially putting it on autopilot-leads to spiraling costs and reduced congressional oversight.
Current federal education spending is at unprecedented levels, but spending more is not the measure of sound education policy. Members should take this opportunity to exercise fiscal discipline, because taxpayers are seeing red.