In the wake of reports that President Bush plans to cut spending on education and other domestic programs if he is reelected, education and ed-tech advocacy groups are calling on lawmakers to preserve federal dollars for schools regardless of the outcome of the November elections.

The Bush administration has told officials who oversee federal education, domestic security, veterans, and other programs to prepare preliminary 2006 budgets that would cut spending after the presidential election, according to White House documents.

An internal memorandum from the White House budget office directed federal agencies to assume the funding levels specified in a database first circulated in February. At that time, the White House denied plans to cut education and other domestic programs in fiscal year 2006.

But since then, the Associated Press (AP) obtained a May 19 White House memorandum along with portions of the internal database. The documents came from congressional officials who requested anonymity. The leaks were first reported by the Washington Post.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said the documents AP obtained contained routine procedural guidelines that would enable federal officials to begin gathering data about their needs for 2006. The federal government’s 2006 fiscal year begins Oct. 1, 2005.

Decisions about spending levels “won’t be made for months,” said the OMB spokesman, J.T. Young. “It doesn’t mean we won’t adequately fund our priorities.”

The concern about funding levels in fiscal year 2006 “is nothing new to us,” said Mary Kusler, senior policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators. The school administrators’ group has been questioning whether the Bush administration intends to cut education spending since the OMB printout first surfaced in February.

“We saw that education was going to take a major hit,” she said. But the administration sidestepped the issue at the time, engaging in what Kusler called “election-year politics.”

Kusler said it’s likely the White House intentionally downplayed the proposed cuts in an effort to shield the president from criticism during his reelection campaign.

“There really is a lot of double-speak going on,” she said. “We find it very disconcerting.”

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, called the proposed reductions “deeply disappointing.”

Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE), called the proposed cuts “just another piece of evidence that indicates [education spending] is a diminishing priority for the federal government.”

Democrats said the papers showed the pressures that a string of tax cuts Bush has won from Congress have heaped onto the rest of the budget.

“The only way we can even begin to pay for these huge tax cuts is by imposing cuts on critical government services,” said Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., in a teleconference set up by Democratic presidential contender John Kerry’s campaign, called it the end of a “hide the ball” budget strategy by the current administration.

“The ball is now out for everyone to see,” Graham said. “The only thing that’s left in place is the part of the ball that is labeled ‘tax cuts for my rich friends.'”

Congress is just beginning to consider the 2005 federal budget, which will total about $2.4 trillion. About two-thirds of it covers automatically paid benefits like Social Security, and the remainder–which Congress must approve annually–covers agency spending.

According to the database, that one-third of the budget would grow from the $821 billion Bush requested for 2005 to $843 billion in 2006, or about 2.7 percent.

But that includes defense and foreign aid spending, which are both slated for increases owing in part to wars and the battle against terrorism.

The remaining amount–for domestic spending–would drop from $368.7 billion in 2005 to $366.3 billion in 2006.

The documents show that Education Department spending would go from $57.3 billion in 2005 to $55.9 billion in 2006, a drop of 2.4 percent. The proposed cuts almost completely offset the $1.7 billion hike in education funding sought by the administration in 2005.

Other proposed cuts would affect the Homeland Security Department (3 percent), Veterans Affairs Department (3.4 percent), Environmental Protection Agency (2.6 percent), National Institutes of Health (2.1 percent), and Interior Department (1.9 percent).

Lori Collins Walk, a grants consultant for several Arizona school districts, said the districts she works with already feel constrained in trying to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind and bridge the digital divide in high-poverty areas.

“Though a $1.5 billion decrease [in federal education spending] appears to be minimal, it does not reflect the additional impact that inflation will have,” she noted. “We also know that access for underserved populations hinges on technology, so the impact will disproportionately affect our rural, high-poverty, and minority students. This further increases the gap between those who have full access to educational opportunities and those who do not.”

According to ISTE’s Knezek the question is whether Bush, if reelected, would be able to push these domestic spending reductions through a closely divided Congress.

If anything, he said, the proposed reductions leaked in the memo should prompt school stakeholders to mobilize and be more proactive in their support of federal funding measures.

The louder that voices of opposition reverberate on Capitol Hill, he said, the more likely Congress is to heed stakeholders’ calls and preserve funding where it is needed.

It’s important for education and ed-tech advocates to realize the buck doesn’t stop with the president, Knezek said. Regardless of who is president next year or what funding levels are proposed, Congress, as always, will have the final say.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

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

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

White House Office of Management and Budget
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb

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