Some Republicans Oppose Giving Schools Slice of Stimulus Pie

In a move that may hinder prospects for a large Pell Grant increase, congressional Republicans – including a former U.S. education secretary – say education spending is a prime example of the wasteful investments in a Democrat-led $825 billion economic stimulus bill.

Days after the House approved a stimulus bill along party lines, some Republicans stepped up their criticism, focusing in part on the measure’s education provisions. The White House will need some Republican help in the Senate, where Democrats lack the votes to end filibusters and cut off debate.

The stimulus bill “ought to be oriented directly toward those items that would specifically create jobs now,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “It should not go toward good-sounding ideas such as Head Start and Pell Grants for college students.”

While not attacking those programs, Alexander said Congress should consider spending for these initiatives in a separate bill – not as part of the economic stimulus package. That view is gaining traction among other Senate Republicans, who argue that the stimulus should focus primarily on housing assistance and tax cuts. Of the $825 billion, about $140 billion in current proposed spending is for K-12 and higher education.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., senior Republican on the Senate education committee, echoed this view. “If Congress and our new president are truly concerned about keeping jobs and creating new ones, let’s not pay lip service with this trumped-up ‘stimulus’ bill,” he said. And House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said $140 billion for education “is not going to do anything, anything to stimulate the economy.”

The stimulus bills proposed by House and Senate Democrats provide billions more for education, including post-secondary programs. The maximum Pell Grant would increase by as much as $500, while college work/study programs may get an extra $490 million. The House also would provide $6 billion – and the Senate, $3.5 billion – for higher education construction and renovation.

Both House and Senate Democrats want $13 billion for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as well as increases for Head Start for at-risk preschool children. Another $39 billion could go to states and localities to stabilize their education budgets, according to the proposed bills.

Democrats argue that the spending will help needy students stay in school and promote a better trained workforce for years to come. It also can help prevent deeper state and local education cutbacks, they say.

“We cannot let our whole education system collapse as the economy falters,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “Together, these investments will meet the most urgent challenges we face.”

While Democrats passed the stimulus bill without Republican votes in the House, they face an uphill battle in the Senate. Democrats hold a slim majority in the chamber but do not, on their own, have the 60 votes needed to close debate and bring a bill up for a vote. As a result, Senate Democrats and the Obama White House must negotiate with Republicans.

But Republicans, such as former education secretary Alexander, say they will hold firm against the current plan. Only tax cuts and more aid to housing can jumpstart the U.S. economy, Alexander added. “A true stimulus,” he said, “is permanent tax relief.”

For their part, education advocates plan to work for the bill’s original provisions. Pell and other increases will help low-income and non-traditional students, said Angela Peoples, legislative director of the United States Student Association. “We need to keep college affordable and accessible during this difficult time,” she said.

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