For much of the last year, community colleges and the Bush administration have, symbolically, been dancing cheek to cheek. Given what's in the Bush administration's 2006 budget proposal, they may spend the next few months fighting toe to toe.
The budget plan released Monday  has some good news for two-year institutions. It would provide $125 million for a new program aimed at encouraging dual enrollment of students in high schools and community colleges, as well as $250 million for a program created last year to encourage two-year institutions to work with local organizations to prepare workers for high-skill, high-demand fields. (Community colleges would also benefit from the administration's plan to boost spending on the Pell Grant Program for low-income students, as many Pell recipients attend two-year colleges.)
Those proposals are consistent with President Bush's oft-repeated statements, including mentions in the last two State of the Union addresses, about the crucial role that community colleges play in driving economic growth -- compliments that officials at the colleges returned with praise for (if hardly an endorsement of) the president during last year's presidential campaign.
But that very same 2006 budget would strip far more money that the institutions are accustomed to receiving than it would provide in new funds. The Education Department's budget plan  would eliminate all vocational and technical funds available through the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act and the Tech Prep program; kill Gear Up, Upward Bound and Talent Search, three programs aimed at encouraging young people from lower-income families to attend college; and slash spending on adult education programs by more than half.
Together, those programs provide hundreds of millions of dollars to community colleges and their students each year -- far more than the two new programs offer.
Which makes all the president's words about the importance of community colleges ring a little hollow to some leaders in the field.
"I think we've been an easy date," says Philip R. Day, chancellor of the City College of San Francisco. "For folks who historically feel that they've been undervalued and underrecognized, it doesn't take much -- we popped up on the radar screen in the State of the Union two years ago, and it was easy to be wowed. Don't get me wrong: We appreciated that.
"But for those of us on the firing line, who are trying to bring about outcomes for the students we serve," Day adds, "there's a major gap here between the rhetoric and the reality."
This is in many ways a politically sensitive topic for community college officials, who do not want to seem ungrateful to an administration that has featured them more prominently than ever before. In return, two-year institutions have given administration officials a platform from which to promote their economic development messages: President Bush spoke at last year's annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, and Laura Bush is the featured speaker at next week's National Legislative Summit of the Association of Community College Trustees.
That attention alone has benefited the institutions significantly, some of their leaders say.
"There has been this bright shining light on community colleges that's never been there before," says Holly Moore, president of Shoreline Community College, in Washington State. "It is more attention than we've ever gotten, and I have to feel that this attention is helping us to come of age."
Administration officials insist that their backing of community colleges is genuine, and insist that the administration's budget proposal does not suggest any diminished support either for the job training that community colleges do, or for efforts to improve the preparation of lower-income students that will help them go on to two-year institutions.
Rather, they say, the administration is redirecting its spending away from efforts that it has judged to be ineffective, like the Talent Search and Upward Bound programs, and toward expanding to the high school level the No Child Left Behind law that is at the core of the White House's education strategy.
In addition to helping to finance the Pell Grant increases, much of the money saved from the programs eliminated in the president's budget would go toward expanding the No Child Left Behind law to high schools. Administration officials say that the new No Child Left Behind funds will prepare students better for college (resulting in less need for programs like Gear Up and Upward Bound), and that states will be able to use some of those funds for job training if they wish.
"Money in our High School Initiative can be used" to fulfill the purposes of some of the programs being eliminated, C. Todd Jones, the Education Department's associate deputy secretary for the budget, said at a briefing Monday. "It isn't that the goals sought by these programs aren't important. We just think there are better ways to achieve them."
Community college officials doubt, though, whether states already stretched thin by trying to carry out the underfinanced No Child Left Behind law will use the new funds to replace the $1.2 billion a year they now spend on vocational education under the Perkins act. About 40 percent, or $500 million, of Perkins money flows to community colleges, which use the funds to finance their technical and vocational programs and provide remedial work and other support for students in those programs.
"We've been very, very successful in the last decade, working with our high school partners, in developing some very effective career academies using Tech Prep and Perkins funds," says the government relations director for a Midwestern community college, who asked not to be identified. We're doing all the things the administration is saying have to happen at the high school level, and yet what they're proposing in this budget is to gut those programs."
This administrator, who says his institution would lose about $1 million a year in Perkins funds (as well as $400,000 that now flows to students there through the Perkins Loan Program for low-income students) if Congress were to enact the Bush budget plan, sees a troubling pattern in his state repeating itself on the national stage.
"For years, we have all the nice 'attaboys' and feel-good stuff coming our way all the time from our legislators, yet at the end of the day, the investment isn't there," the official says. "Now I see the same thing happening at the federal level."
This official and others are hopeful, if not confident, that Congress will protect their interests, by providing funds for vocational education and other programs that the administration proposes to cut. "Our colleges are convinced of the value of the Perkins Act, GEAR UP, Upward Bound, and Talent Search, and intend to fight for them," says David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
It's probably just a coincidence, but President Bush is not on the agenda for the association's annual convention this year.