The 49 Percent Solution?

During the final debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry, the president referred to education as the solution for problems ranging from decisions by corporate leaders to send jobs overseas to the need to raise the minimum wage. He also argued that federal funding for education had been increased by 49 percent during his administration. Certainly, if education is to solve problems as diverse as outsourcing and low wages, it will need more resources, but the president left a highly misleading impression of his role with respect to providing those resources.

During the later part of the 1990s, there was an unprecedented surge in the level of support that the federal government provided to the nation’s education efforts. This was in part because the difficult choices made in the early part of the decade had finally created a budget situation that would permit the nation to make such investments within the context of a balanced budget. It was also because globalization had convinced the American people (and as a result, a large share of their representatives in Congress) that better schools were a top priority and critical to the economic future of the nation’s children.

During the five years between fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 2001 (the last budget adopted under the Clinton administration), the school year program level1 for the Department of Education increased from $23 billion to $43.2 billion, an increase of 83 percent and an annual growth rate of 13 percent. The federal government was finally providing an increasing rather than decreasing share of the resources needed by local schools. The budget of the Department of Education was also growing as a share of the total federal budget.

Gov. Bush, as a candidate for president in 2000, tried to tap into the same sentiment that had driven congressional support for better schools. His proposal, entitled “Leave No Child Behind,” appeared to say that the pace of increased support for schools by the federal government was too slow—that if elected he would do more. But the public record demonstrates that once in office, the president tried and succeeded in slowing the growth of federal support for education. When viewed on the basis of school year program levels, the growth in support of education is only 36 percent during the four budgets that he has presided over. That works out to growth of a little less than 8 percent a year, or a rate of growth nearly 40 percent below the average for the five years before he took office.

But the story does not stop there. These are the final appropriations numbers. Did the president fight for more for money for school and get rebuffed by the “non compassionate” conservatives in Congress? The answer is no. More than two-thirds of the increases in education funding since the president took office have been increases added by the Congress over and above the amounts requested by the administration. A spreadsheet on the U.S. Department of Education website tells the story. Of the $15.1 billion increase in discretionary appropriations between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2005, $4.4 billion was requested by the White House and $10.7 billion came about because the Congress insisted on providing schools with more than the president had requested. The average yearly increase for schools proposed by the Bush White House has been 2.3 percent, not enough to permit schools to keep up with inflation, much less raise teacher salaries, cut the size of classes or correct the numerous health and safety issues prevalent in many of our poorest school systems.

Even worse from the standpoint of schools is the budget mess that the tax policies of this administration have left behind. Education was a major beneficiary of the improving fiscal condition of the federal government in the late 1990s. Just as was true in the 1980s, schools will likely be one of the big losers when the red ink from the Bush budget policies gets mopped up in future Congresses.

1Congress has used complex schemes to circumvent its own budgetary restrictions on new spending and has increased funding for local schools by placing part of the new funds in the budget year controlled by the Congressional Budget Resolution and additional funds for the same school year but not made available until the beginning of the subsequent fiscal year. In order to understand the change in the flow of federal funds into education over time, one must examine which school years the budget authority for a given fiscal year was designated in the annual appropriation measures. The “school year program level” examines changes in education funding on that basis.