Education Secretary Margaret Spellings faced tough questioning yesterday from both Republicans and Democrats on her department’s 2008 budget, as many lawmakers said they no longer would tolerate freezes in funding for minority-serving institutions and other post-secondary programs.
“Despite enrollment growth and demographic realities, we really haven’t seen any increase for historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a Congressional Black Caucus member. The 2008 budget would level fund both programs. “Their numbers are growing, but their funding is stagnant.”
Citing difficult budget choices, Spellings said the spending plan instead focuses on raising the maximum Pell Grant to $4,600, nearly $300 above current funding. If approved, this increase will help needy students at minority-serving institutions, she added.
“In a budget of tough choices, that’s a better allocation of resources,” Spellings said.
Lee also sought more for college support and access programs, noting that federal TRIO services reach only about 7 percent of eligible students. Yet both TRIO and GEAR UP are slated for funding freezes next year. “These programs should be expanded because they work,” she added.
Spellings’ appearance before a powerful House Appropriations subcommittee highlighted the many changes taking place on Capitol Hill since Democrats took control in January. While lawmakers will give close scrutiny to proposed cuts, as they have in the past, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the panel chairman, said even level funding for many programs is unacceptable.
Education programs need regular adjustments for both inflation and population growth, he said. Including such factors, the president’s 2008 budget actually reflects a $6 billion, or 10 percent, cut since 2005. Obey pledged that the panel would change this direction. “This budget is going to be increased,” he said.
Several Democrats also criticized the budget as an unfair “shell game,” with increases in some areas offset by cuts elsewhere. Programs slated for cuts include career and technical education, supplemental financial aid grants and drug-free schools.
“Won’t we be robbing Peter to pay for Pell?” asked Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill.
Several Republicans joined in criticizing the administration’s proposal. “I don’t take this budget seriously, and it’s hard to defend it,” said Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho. He said federal programs are placing mandates on states in special education and K-12 reform without sufficient funds, particularly for rural areas.
A proposed $5 million cut in funding for tribal colleges also drew criticism from Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Citing high unemployment on Indian reservations, Udall said the 20 percent funding cut would cause serious harm.
“I don’t understand the thinking behind this,” he said. “If we have a major problem with Native American employment, why aren’t we funding programs that can make a difference?”
Lee also called for more action to combat the high dropout rates among African American males. “I don’t see anything targeted here for dropout prevention,” she said.
Spellings countered that the plan seeks more money through Title I to focus on high schools, which often are shortchanged through the program. “Our high schools are not making the grade,” she noted.
Yet Udall said states and schools are getting far less than many envisioned under the No Child Left Behind Act. “I don’t see you putting in the type of resources that will make a difference,” he added.
After a series of hearings, the subcommittee will write a fiscal 2008 education spending bill later this year.
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