DRIVEN by concerns such as United States economic competitiveness, the quality of future American workers, and a growing underclass, Congress is shifting its thinking - and funding priorities - on education. For the past six years, President Reagan's ``New Federalism'' demanded more state and local support for public schools. (Since 1979, federal support for elementary and secondary education decreased $4.2 billion - from 9.2 to 6.2 percent.) Now Congress is moving to add a stronger federal role to the already improved local involvement.
This includes more strategic spending, and more accountability.
Congress has absorbed the lesson of the disparity between Japanese and American attention to education, and ``no longer sees education primarily as a social agenda, but as an economic agenda,'' says political economist Michael Porter of Harvard University.
The fiscal 1988 budget, signed last month, is a primary example. After the smoke from the December budget summit battle cleared, Chapter I funds (remedial aid to disadvantaged students, the largest federal program) were increased 12 percent - from $3.9 billion to $4.3 billion. Pell Grants (for college tuition) jumped 10 percent - from $3.8 to $4.2 billion. Smaller, strategic spending programs such as money to improve math and science teaching increased 50 percent - from $80 million to $119 million.
Despite severe fiscal restraint, several key House staff members noted that money for major education programs fared better than comparable funding in other federal areas such as prisons, housing, and parks. (See chart, this page.)
``There's a new consensus among members of Congress,'' says Jack Jennings, counsel to the Education and Labor Committee of the House. ``They know we are going to have more poor and disadvantaged students, we aren't going to be properly prepared - therefore we have to pay attention.''
Two other bills already signed off on but still in conference include an omnibus trade bill with up to $500 million for education in the areas of math and science, foreign language, technology transfers between industry and college research labs, and local school-business partnerships; and the reauthorization of Chapter I through 1991, which may net up to $300 million more.
Final decisions on these bills will not be made until late summer. Money and programs are likely to fluctuate as rapidly as the Dow Jones average and the monthly trade deficit figures, staff aides say.
For most of last year, education was on a funding roll unmatched in a decade. A massive reauthorization that passed 401 to 1 in the House would have added $800 million to 1988 funding. Chapter I alone was slated for a 16 percent increase. But then came ``Black Monday.'' Appropriations were put on hold. The budget summit cut all federal discretionary programs 4.2 percent. Several took bigger hits.
But many believe ``competitiveness'' will continue to force a greater federal role. As Mr. Jennings says: ``The consensus [is that] these new bills ... create a mood and expectation that leads to the talk that leads to action. Congress acts on talk. Eventually that leads to something happening.''
American business leaders are also pressuring Congress. William Woodside of American Can, as well as corporate leaders making up the influential Committee for Economic Development - usually conservative about federal spending - asked Congress this year to spend billions more on Chapter I and its preschool equivalent, Head Start.
(In a related development, the White House leaked to the Associated Press on Jan. 8 its decision to ask for a $21 billion 1989 education budget. That's a $6.1 billion election-year increase over its 1988 request).
But the new shift is not simply a matter of funding. Congress has, for example, begun to see problems such as trade and deficits not so much as a ``cause, but as a symptom,'' one aide says. Several years ago, Congress focused on retraining workers as a key to solving the trade issue. Now it's moved to more strategic spending: early childhood education, literacy, dropout prevention, and remedial help - for future workers.
As Republican education House leader Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania put it, all the trade, deficit, defense, and foreign policy woes pale before the fact of 26 to 60 million illiterate Americans: ``Unless we attack that problem, all the rest ... will go for naught.''
``We have been used to being No. 1 suddenly we are not, and it's sinking in slowly [to members of Congress] that maybe that has something to do with our conduct,'' Jennings adds.
Observers such as Harvard's Dr. Porter feel the time is coming when the federal government itself will provide more strategic leadership and support for school reform - thus far left to state and local school systems. The local control of an earlier, isolated America is not sufficient for an economically interdependent world, he says.
One path by which such help may be forthcoming is in an expanded national assessment that would offer annual comparative state-by-state and large district school performance figures. The current National Assesssment of Educational Progress (NAEP) analyzes student performance in specific subjects. Its budget is about $3.5 million. The new assessment, just authorized by the Senate, will cost $11.5 million next year - up to $19.6 million by 1992. Insiders say it's certain the expanded NAEP will pass, though specific details need to be worked out. (This NAEP has become controversial, with critics charging that it may undermine curriculur diversity.)
The NAEP also underscores the winds of ``accountability'' that have swept through Congress. Less accountable programs, such as state block grants - free money to the states - were cut this year.
Congress relaxed some old rules for local Chapter I spending, including the demand for matching state and local funds, and allowing new schoolwide remediation for schools with more than 75 percent disadvantaged students. Previously, students were taken out of class for special help - a practice that can be disruptive.
Other new rules will require local districts to intervene if reading scores in Chapter I schools don't improve in a year. After two years of no progress, the state would intervene - but a 1 percent federal outlay to help states pay for this is tied up in conference committee.
US spending patterns highlight priorities
For 20 years Jack Jennings has helped shape and mold education legislation in Washington. A partisan Democrat, as counsel to the Education and Labor Committee of the House, he's become one of the most influential education aides on the Hill. In a brief interview with the Monitor, he said that education has become a public priority in the past five years. Where does that leave Congress and the federal government?
``The practical strategy is that you have to spend more money,'' he says. ``When President Carter decided in '78 that the military didn't have enough money, he started spending.... That's how a government tells what's important - by how it spends its money. That has a ripple effect through the whole system. The government operates through a budget.''
Today, there's a public consensus that the federal government should intervene on behalf of the disadvantaged, Mr. Jennings says. ``In the 1960s, many of the social programs were enacted because [President] Johnson suddenly had the political means - by having had a weak candidate against him, and a Congress willing to enact what he wanted. I don't know if you could have gotten a consensus among the population about helping the poor. Hopefully today there's more of a consensus, and more accountability. At the time, all Johnson was concerned about was enacting things fast, because he understood how fast the political landscape changes. ... You can't do that today. We did it with defense in the '80s, the environment in the '70s, social programs in the '60s. But we don't have the money to do it in the '90s because we are so much in the hole. We are going to have to be more prudent today - prove more results, and put the money into programs that have been tested.''