Ending a tense standoff with the White House, the Democratic-led Congress has agreed to a $555-billion year-end budget bill that meets President Bush’s baseline spending cap on domestic programs and allows lawmakers to return home for the holidays.

The budget contains $59.4 billion in funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED), though an across-the-board recision of 1.75 percent (applied equally to all domestic programs) will leave actual spending at $58.4 billion. That’s still $1 billion more than in 2007—and $2.2 billion more than Bush had requested.

Under the new budget deal, federal funding for educational technology remains the same, at $272 million—though the recision will bring actual spending levels down to $267 million, thus marking the fifth time in the last six years that federal ed-tech funding has been reduced.

Still, supporters of school technology say the 2008 federal budget could have been worse.

“We are glad to see that Congress continues to recognize the significant impact [educational technology] has on schools and students,” said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

The recision was an “across-the-board cut, and all programs suffered,” said Hilary Goldmann, director of government affairs for the International Society for Technology in Education. “Other programs had significant cuts. In the scheme of things, we’re pleased, and we think our Ed-Tech Action Network [a national grassroots advocacy campaign] really made a difference this year. … It shows that Congress heard us and shows the support we’re getting.”

Ed-tech advocates had reason to be concerned after the president vetoed lawmakers’ first budget attempt last month. That bill, part of a package that included $22 billion in domestic spending increases, would have boosted total ED funding by 5 percent, to $63.6 billion.

As Congress sought a budget compromise, the White House—urged on by many hard-line Republicans—threatened to veto any legislation that proposed spending increases to non-military domestic programs.

Democrats succeeded in smoothing out the rough edges of Bush’s February budget plan, which sought below-inflation increases for domestic programs (other than military-base construction) and contained numerous cutbacks and program eliminations.

Democrats and moderate Republicans were able to fill in most of the cuts by shifting money from the Pentagon and foreign aid budgets, adding “emergency” funding above Bush’s budget cap, and adding future-year funding for federal education programs.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, had this to say in response to the final budget bill: “NEA applauds leaders in the House of Representatives for making significant increases in education funding, despite the Scrooge-like constraints outlined by the White House.”

Weaver continued: “Clearly, we had hoped for higher funding levels, but the numbers show that lawmakers worked hard to make children winners in this budget battle. A greater investment in education is needed to provide public schools with the resources to ensure that all children have access to a [high-]quality public education and a chance to compete in a global economy.”

Under the year-end budget bill, Title I funding will increase by about $1 billion after the recision, to $13.9 billion (about the same as Bush proposed). Improving Teacher Quality state grants will receive about $48 million more, to $2.94 billion (about $150 million more than Bush sought). Special-education grants to states will see a $165 million increase, to $10.9 billion ($456 million more than Bush’s request). Grants to after-school programs will get $100 million more, to $1.08 billion ($100 million more than the president sought). And career and technical education will receive $1.16 billion in funding—$20 million less than last year, but nearly $600 million more than Bush proposed.

The biggest loser in the 2008 education budget was the president’s signature Reading First program, which will receive $506 million—less than half of the $1.15 billion it got in 2007.

In slashing the Reading First budget by some $643 million, lawmakers might have been voicing their displeasure with the Bush administration’s handling of the program. ED released a series of audits earlier this year that revealed significant mismanagement of the program, resulting in referrals to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.

Still, the cuts are sure to affect reading programs in several states and school systems—many of which rely on proven software programs to help boost reading scores.

There were other losers in the final budget, too. The $99 million State Grants for Innovative Programs initiative was zeroed out, as was the $11 million Star Schools program, which funded creative telecommunications and distance-education programs in schools. And the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program took a $64 million hit, to $513 million (an 11-percent cut).

Federal funding for science and research also proved disappointing to educators—especially in light of the recent sub-par performance of U.S. students on an international science exam.

“The FY08 omnibus appropriations bill is very disappointing to those who support the competitiveness and innovation agendas of the president and Congress,” said Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. “After accounting for inflation, this legislation essentially flat-funds or cuts funding for key science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy Office of Science. Additionally, the bill cuts need-based student aid, making it more difficult for low-income students to attend college and contribute to the nation’s economy.”

Berdahl added: “The America COMPETES Act, enacted earlier this year, was a far-reaching response to concerns about the nation’s long-term competitiveness. It proposed new funding and programs that would enhance the nation’s research capabilities, while improving science and math education for students from elementary schools right through postgraduate education. The America COMPETES Act has little meaning if it is not funded, and this bill does not fund it. We will work with Congress and the president in hopes that they begin to fulfill that commitment next year, because this year has been a severe disappointment.”

He concluded: “In exchange for an arbitrary cap on domestic spending and thousands of earmarks, the administration and Congress have sacrificed investments in research and education that would help assure our nation’s long-term national and economic security.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education: 2008 budget overview

State Educational Technology Directors Association

International Society for Technology in Education

Ed-Tech Action Network

National Education Association

Association of American Universities