Ending months of political wrangling, Congress on Feb. 13 finally approved an education budget for fiscal year 2003 that preserves roughly $147 million in educational technology programs that President Bush would have preferred to cut, while increasing funding for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by some $1.4 billion over 2002 spending levels.

The legislature’s version of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill asks Bush to approve nearly $2.8 billion more for education spending than was allotted for in his 2003 budget request, bringing the total funding for education to $53.1 billion. Although that’s nearly $3.1 billion more than was spent on education in all of 2002, it draws just about even with what the president already has proposed for 2004.

The funding increases come as a relief to several education stakeholders, many of whom worried that a shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill—combined with the ongoing war on terror and a possible confrontation with Iraq—might spell the end of several ed-tech programs in schools.

But in an early showing of independence, the Republican-controlled 108th Congress ignored Bush’s request to eliminate several major initiatives, including the Star Schools program, a $27.5 million project that promotes the development of telecommunications services and audiovisual equipment in underserved schools; Community Technology Centers, a $32.5 million program that funds the creation of computer centers in low-income environments; Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3), a $62.5 million program that promotes partnerships between higher education and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction; and the Regional Technology in Education Consortia, a $10 million program for providing technical support and services to schools.

The appropriations bill also places an emphasis on delivering educational assistance to needy and disadvantaged students, increasing spending for both Title I and IDEA by more than $400 million apiece compared with the president’s 2003 request. All told, both programs are slated to increase by more than $1.4 billion compared with fiscal year 2002.

Total discretionary funding for the 2003 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill is $397.4 billion. That includes an across-the-board reduction of an estimated 0.65 percent to offset additional discretionary funds in the bill, the committee said. While the bill—which is expected to be signed by President Bush soon—asks for significant increases in Title I and IDEA, more nominal increases are requested in several areas to counteract the effects of those sweeping reductions.

The emergence of the 2003 spending bill from a joint House-Senate negotiating committee ends a five-month impasse over current-year spending figures, owing in part to staunch opposition from several Democrats and a number of moderate Republicans who argued that cutting federal education dollars was no way to meet the increased demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Despite speculation that a Republican-led majority in both houses of Congress would make it easier for the Bush administration to rally support for cutting certain ed-tech programs, Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), said education spending generally enjoys bipartisan support.

“It’s really a pro-education issue, not an issue of [whether you’re] Republican or Democrat,” Kusler said.

After a series of continuing resolutions failed to produce a budget late last year, Congress eventually recessed, maintaining spending at 2002 levels while vowing to make passage of a 2003 appropriations package a top priority for the new year.

But as the stalemate continued into January, the job eventually was handed to a joint House-Senate conference committee, whose responsibility it was to hammer out a compromise that could be sent to the president.

“This got so absurd with [the final budget] being this late in the year that [supporters of the president’s proposed cuts] just gave in,” said Norris Dickard, director of public policy for the Benton Foundation. “It was almost embarrassing.”

Although 2003 funding was supposed to have been decided last October, AASA’s Kusler said the recent hold-up produced some very education-friendly results. “In terms of the appropriations, we are really very happy,” Kusler said. “There have been significant contributions made to many major programs.”

Don Knezick, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), said he was especially pleased that Congress chose to uphold its commitment to financial aid for disadvantaged students.

“Certainly with the tough budget times, I’m pleased to see we’ve maintained the state block grants at a level that makes sense,” Knezick said.

ISTE’s chief executive also pointed to the continuance of the $62.5 million PT3 initiative as a testament to the need for stronger, more technology-driven professional development programs. “The PT3 program reflects a recognition by Congress that [technology professional development] is a priority in this country,” he said. “The definition of highly qualified and competent teachers needs to include the ability to work in technology-rich environments.”

Links:

2003 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending figures
http://www.house.gov/appropriations/info/lhhs_03conf_detail.pdf

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Benton Foundation
http://www.benton.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org