Members of a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee took full advantage Wednesday of their first formal opportunity to respond to the Bush administration’s proposed 2007 budget,  peppering Education Secretary Margaret Spellings with probing questions.
The budget  calls for $54.4 billion in discretionary appropriations for the U.S. Department of Education in 2007, a decrease of $3.1 billion (or 5.5 percent) from the 2006 amount. Admitting "it is a tough budget, no question," Spellings stoically defended the administration's proposals in the hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
Senators praised the Education Department for its role in providing financial help to colleges damaged by Hurricane Katrina and students forced to study away from their home campuses. But most of the hearing featured harsh rhetoric from subcommittee members (of both parties) who found fault in many of the budget cuts.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, called the budget proposal "scandalous." Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said it was "inadequate and disheartening."
Both pressed Spellings to explain why many of the student aid and grant programs would be kept at their 2006 levels or cut outright. For instance, the budget would hold the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050 for the fifth year in a row.
"Can you name one college where the tuition is the same as it was four years ago?" said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee’s top Democrat. "And these [grants] are for the poorest kids."
In one of the frankest exchanges, Harkin asked Spellings if she wholeheartedly backed the Education Department budget proposal in its current form.
"Certainly," Spellings said. "[The president] believes this is the smartest allocation given the resources possible." She added that many community college students would be able to afford a higher education at the Pell Grant’s current level.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) argued against eliminating the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which finances many college job training programs, and the Perkins Loan Program for low-income students, which are both on the chopping block in the president’s budget proposal. He said the grants have played an important role in his home state, and he accused the president of being unresponsive. (The administration tried to drop both programs in its 2006 budget but was rebuffed by Congress.)
"Senators in both parties felt strongly about Perkins,” Kohl said. “They have a real impact on students going to college."
Spellings pointed out that some of the programs that the administration proposes to cut, including the Gear Up and TRIO programs  designed to help needy middle and high school students prepare to attend college, would be addressed by the Education Department’s $1.5 billion effort to extend the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools -- the so-called "High School Reform Initiative."
Spellings said she is in favor of redistributing funds tied up in current pre-college programs to those that align with the principles of No Child Left Behind, the administration’s signature effort to revamp elementary and secondary education.
Harkin praised Spellings for the Bush administration’s attempt to add flexibility to No Child Left Behind. Still, some senators expressed doubt that redistribution of some funds would solve the problem.
"It seems impossible to make [the difference] up with the shuffling you are suggesting," Specter said.
Spellings touted the American Competitiveness Initiative that President Bush unveiled in his State of the Union address,  which would allocate $380 million to boost K-12 math and science education. And she called for more advanced placement courses in high school.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked Spellings to reconsider her department’s recent decision  to allow institutions to gauge student interest in athletic participation – to comply with Title IX --
by using an e-mail survey in which non-responses are the same as an answer of "no."
"This is setting a new low bar,” Murray said. “If we base compliance on an e-mail survey of women in college, it's not a smart way to go."
Spellings disagreed, saying it is a "legitimate prong to ascertain information."