Congress headed for budget clash

U.S. lawmakers will be facing a $6 billion disparity between the Senate and House education budgets for 2006 when a conference committee convenes later this year to hash out a compromise. How the two sides end up agreeing will go a long way toward determining how much money will be available in the federal budget for school technology.

In a rebuke to President Bush’s 2006 education budget proposal, which seeks to slash federal spending for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) by nearly $1 billion in the coming year, the Senate last month approved a plan that includes some $6 billion more for the nation’s schools and universities than Bush had proposed. House lawmakers on the same day passed a budget that mirrors the president’s plan, leaving spending for education at $56 billion and eliminating funding for the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program and 47 other education initiatives.

Though White House officials have argued the cuts are necessary to begin chipping away at the mounting federal deficit, which Bush has vowed to cut in half in four years, education advocates say slashing money from school programs is no way to achieve the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Senate lawmakers would appear to agree. They passed three amendments to the budget bill in a bipartisan effort to increase federal spending on the nation’s schools. The lion’s share of the money–approximately $5.4 billion–was proposed by Massachusetts senator and longtime education advocate Edward Kennedy, a Democrat.

These additional funds–part of which would give new science, math, and special-education teachers in high-need schools a guarantee of up to $23,000 in student loan forgiveness for four years of teaching–would be paid for by closing $5.4 billion in corporate tax loopholes, Kennedy’s office said.

Another amendment, proposed by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, would supply an additional $500 million in education funding. These funds are not earmarked for any specific purpose in the bill, meaning ED officials would be responsible for deciding how they would be allocated.

The third and final amendment would add $29 million to the proposed 2006 budget for the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), a six-year-old federal initiative designed to help rural schools win federal grants. Introduced by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., the amendment would bump 2006 funding for REAP up to $115 million. Bush had wanted to keep funding for rural-education initiatives in line with 2005 levels. Last year, REAP received $85 million.

“There is no greater national priority than the education of our children,” Conrad said. “The amendment that I introduced … will work to ensure students in rural America receive a high-quality education and have every opportunity to succeed in life.”

A survey of rural school districts in North Dakota last year found that 80 percent were using REAP funds for technology purchases, according to North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat. For instance, Steve Holen, superintendent/high school principal of the Bisbee-Egeland schools in Bisbee, N.D., said his district used REAP money to build a mobile wireless classroom, among other uses.

The addition of more funding for REAP and other education programs could help offset the loss of EETT and other initiatives, which now appears likely despite the better efforts of ed-tech advocates (see “Report: Tech funds essential to NCLB“). Neither the Senate nor the House version of the budget bill includes money targeted specifically for EETT, though there is a slim chance that could change in the conference committee meetings.

Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), remains hopeful that EETT funding ultimately will be restored to the budget.

“CoSN is very encouraged by the Senate’s recognition that the budget drastically underfunds education, and we hope that the additional funds approved will inure to the benefit of ed tech,” Krueger said. “I was especially heartened by positive statements about ed tech on the Senate floor … and from the vocal support that it received from a bipartisan group of House appropriators at a House hearing on the education budget a few weeks back.”

He added: “We feel that the need for federal ed-tech funding and leadership is beginning to gain traction. Clearly, members of Congress are now grasping the importance of ed tech to attaining NCLB goals–and we think that, in the end, they will see their way clear to restoring EETT funds.”

Related story:

ED: Results matter more than rules


Senate Appropriations Committee

House Appropriations Committee

Consortium for School Networking

Bisbee-Egeland Schools

eSchool News Staff

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