Budget shuffle: Schools both gain and lose

He gives with one hand - even as he takes away with the other. That's the way some educators are looking at President Bush's 2005 budget proposals. Overall, Bush's program would seek $57.3 billion for the Department of Education, an increase of $1.7 billion, or 3 percent over 2004. But at the same time, it would eliminate 65 federal programs - 38 of them in the Department of Education.

Some observers say it comes down to a wash. But critics see the budget as strewn with broken promises.

"The president has come out strongly saying he wants to support high schools," says Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"He wants to promote reading in the upper grades with his Striving Readers initiative, but to fund this, he wants to kill programs that more broadly support high schools," such as school reform, dropout prevention, and a move towards smaller learning environments.

"It's a shell game," says Mr. Carr.

"It's sleight of hand," agrees Joel Packer of the National Education Association. "Most of the increases are offset by losses in other areas."

He, too, points to the Striving Readers program launched by the Bush administration.

"Sure, $100 million has been devoted to this, but at the same time we're facing cuts in vocational education, smaller-school initiatives, and we're to eliminate school counselors. So the same constituency [high schools] is losing $400 million to gain a $100 million program."

Some educators worry that cutting such programs especially shortchanges efforts to comply with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which among a myriad of requirements, expects states to substantially lower their dropout rates.

If Bush succeeds in cutting the $5 million dropout-prevention program, schools in Fargo, N.D., won't stop funding their own program, says Deb Dillon, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School and dropout prevention coordinator.

While graduation rates in Fargo hover around 84 percent, close to the national average, the district is committed to raising that number to 95 percent.

But still, Ms. Dillon says, federal dollars are essential for programs of various sorts. "We need [federal] support for programs all the way through school, not just when kids reach 15 or 16."

Carr says there's a disconnect between the president's expectations for NCLB and the proposed budget.

"Why would he zero out a program that is trying to find ways to keep kids in school?" he asks.

Even though $5 million is a small amount, says Sam Drew of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, "it provides seed money that is important to get more states to look at the problem."

But others defend the president's proposals and argue that he is putting dollars where they will do the most good.

"The budget is a reflection of the president's priorities," says Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, who worked on the US education budget in the 1960s. "He's cutting smaller, antiquated programs in favor of his own programs. But the scale is very limited. We're not talking about big sums of money here. The cuts are largely symbolic."

Professor Kirst argues that the president's strategy is sound, and that some targeted initiatives such as the $234 million Comprehensive School Reform are superseded by provisions under No Child Left Behind.

Kirst says that in a tight budget year, "Education has fared pretty well."

He agrees, however, that the overall funding is still not enough.

"Yes, we've seen increases to Special Education, and Title I [which benefits disadvantaged children], but funding for Pell grants [to pay for college] has lagged. We're just not in a big enough ballpark."

Mr. Packer of the NEA calls these broken promises.

"The NCLB budget is $9 billion below what was pledged by the government when the law was passed," he says. "And 29 years after Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special ed funding is only just at the halfway mark of what was promised."

Still, Packer and others are hopeful that - as has happened in the past - Congress will restore many of the targeted programs.

"It's unlikely that Congress will accept many, if any, program eliminations," he says. "It's a fight between presidential and congressional priorities."

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