- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

President Bush's new budget gives the Education Department the biggest proposed increase in domestic spending, with a 10 percent rise for national school improvement and public school choice for parents and students.
The budget includes $75 million for a Choice Incentive Fund, with a portion earmarked for a pilot voucher project in the District that was the brainchild of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, but vetoed by President Clinton in 1998.
"President Bush understands that the strength of a nation begins at the schoolhouse door, because a well-oiled economy depends on a well-prepared work force," Secretary Rod Paige said of the department's proposed $53.1 billion budget for fiscal 2004, which starts Oct. 1.
The spending plan includes $12.4 billion for state and local Title I grants to help schools carry out reforms required by the No Child Left Behind Act a $1 billion increase.
"And if schools aren't teaching and children aren't learning, then the president's budget provides an estimated $756 million to empower parents by giving them education options for their children," Mr. Paige said at a news briefing yesterday.
The department's various school-choice programs include $420 million to expand charter schools in the District and other low-income communities, a $45 million increase.
The president has asked for a 50 percent increase in the Choice Incentive Fund to provide parents of students at low-performing schools with expanded opportunities to transfer their children to successful public, charter or private schools.
The plan for a national demonstration voucher project in the District was approved by Congress in 1997. It was proposed by Mr. Lieberman and co-sponsored in the House by Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican. But the plan died because Congress was unable to muster the necessary two-thirds majority of both houses to override Mr. Clinton's veto.
District proponents of school choice have since pushed for another chance to implement the pilot voucher program. They point to the District's strong law for charter schools as evidence that school choice is effectively administered by the city.
"With 39 charter schools and 15 percent of the student population in charter schools, its success and health underscore the benefits of strong laws," said Jeanne Allen, president of the District-based Center for Education Reform.
"The District, like many states, has its share of challenges with the usual bureaucratic tinkering, but D.C.'s crop has an open hearing from the District's two chartering authorities, has permitted parents and companies to run schools, is given a substantial amount of funding and is autonomous from government entities," Mrs. Allen said.
In addition to the $1 billion increase for Title I state and local grants, which would be used to help students meet tougher state academic standards, the budget calls for a $1.9 billion increase for college Pell grants currently funded at $10.9 billion and $1 billion more for special-education state grants, now funded at $8.5 billion.
"These three increases comprise about one-third of the new domestic discretionary dollars the president is seeking for his entire domestic agenda," Mr. Paige said. "No other domestic agency has three programs receiving such monumental increases."
While the president's education proposal was praised by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, complained that the Bush plan was just "a $2.8 billion or 5.6 percent increase over the administration's [fiscal] 2003 request and … $3.9 billion below the Senate-passed FY 2003 education level" with a 2.9 percent across-the-board governmentwide reduction included in the Senate's year-end omnibus spending bill.
"The Bush FY 2004 budget eliminates 45 [congressionally enacted categorical] education programs … for total cuts of nearly $3 billion below FY 2002 levels," said a Democratic analysis of the Bush plan released by Mr. Obey.

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