Margaret Spellings' Last Stand

February 27, 2008

She appeared for the final time before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies to defend President Bush's final education budget. And as farewell receptions go, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' wasn't particularly warm.

"I don't know what you guys are smoking over there," said Rep. Dennis Rehberg of Montana.

"The federal government has abandoned technology education," added Rep. John E. Peterson of Pennsylvania.

Those were some of the Republican send-offs. You can imagine what lawmakers on the other side of the aisle had to say.

"I'll tell you flat out... I'm glad this is the last budget on education [from this president]," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) "How do you come and tell us that education is a priority?"

For all the finger wagging and stump speeches, the political reality this time around -- that Congress could opt to set aside this budget and wait for the next administration, making the Bush budget and Spellings truly irrelevant -- wasn't mentioned until the closing remarks from Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I'm not about to waste the time of this committee with a needless eight-month scramble over money if the president continues to stick by his original requests," Obey said. "I want to work things out now or wait until a new president comes to act like an adult."

Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), the senior Republican on the subcommittee, came to Spellings' defense, saying that "we're the body that has the power of the purse," and adding that the process of wrangling over money for education programs is part of "the game."

"It's not a game to me," Obey quickly responded.

The question-and-answer session with Spellings that began hours earlier followed a clear pattern. Someone on the subcommittee would complain about Program X being slated for extinction or Program Y being flat-funded. Spellings would respond that the Bush administration is favoring programs that serve the most students and give the most latitude to states.

The Bush budget would eliminate 27 education programs that receive less than $25 million, many of which "have a limited impact; duplicate larger, more flexible authorities; or have failed to demonstrate positive results," Spellings said in her opening statement.

DeLauro, in response, said the budget shows "no understanding of the federal role in education," and limits opportunities for underserved students.

Not surprisingly, Spellings pointed to the proposed Pell Grant increase as one of the successes of the president's fiscal 2009 budget. The budget plan recommends a $2.6 billion increase in the entitlement program, which along with the $490-per-grant rise that Congress set into place during the reconciliation legislation, would increase the maximum Pell Grant to $4,800 in 2009. Spellings again pointed out that Pell funding would reach $18.9 billion, an increase of 116 percent, since the president took office.

"I'm proud this is an issue of bipartisan consensus," Spellings said.

Obey, speaking generally about education programs that have seen increases over Bush's tenure, told Spellings that growth has been more a matter of Congress restoring or boosting funding for the programs than the administration sticking up for them in the first place.

As was the case last year, the Bush budget proposes funding the Pell increase in part by cutting other programs, among them the Perkins Loan Program and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program, which also tend to support low-income students. Congress opted to keep those programs last year.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said the administration is "setting up a dysfunctional system" in which it takes from some programs that help low-income students and gives to others. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said the budget "doesn't reflect the committee's values." The Education Department, he added, should take into account how the smaller programs would fare if they were funded at proper levels.

Obey complained that by calling for flat funding for Gear Up and TRIO, programs that serve low-income students, the administration is "contributing to the 20-year trend of widening the [education] gap."

It was clear at the time it was released that the Bush budget would upset advocates for community colleges by calling for cuts to career and technical education, and minority-serving institutions by cutting annual spending for the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program by $85 million (the amount of federal mandatory funds that budget reconciliation legislation that Congress approved last fall would direct to the institutions each year between 2008 and 2012.)

"What is going on as it relates to educating children who don't have much money, or are minorities?" asked Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) "These cuts impact their ability to learn. What do you all think over there?"

The administration’s budget would also cut discretionary support by $23 million for tribally controlled colleges, which received a $30 million increase for 2008 and 2009 from the budget reconciliation act, as well as cut $11.6 million from the Strengthening Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving Institutions Program, which received $15 million from the budget bill last year.

"You can use all the platitudes you want, but tribal colleges in my state will tell you that this administration doesn't get it," Rehberg said.

Advocates of Hispanic-serving institutions point to the budget's proposal to reduce discretionary support by about $18 million for their colleges under Title V of the Higher Education Act. Spellings argued that Pell Grant increases would help low-income students who are searching for extra help.

Several lawmakers bemoaned the administration’s plan to eliminate funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which include the $103 million for Tech-Prep Education State Grants that primarily go to community colleges. (The budget does call for allocating $363 million in 2009 for a new loan program for short-term job training for “dislocated, unemployed, transitioning or older workers.")

Still, Peterson echoed complaints that the administration hasn't made technical education a priority.

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