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The Nation

Bush Seeks Rise in School Aid for Poor, Disabled

Budget: The president wants large increases in two federal programs. Resistance is expected in Congress from both sides of the aisle.

January 20, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Moving to make education one of the defining domestic issues of his administration, President Bush on Saturday called for billion-dollar increases in federal funding for programs serving disabled and disadvantaged students.

If approved by Congress, the increases would allow the Bush White House to reasonably claim to be among the most committed administrations in recent history to expanding key areas of federal education spending.

Bush used his weekly radio address to call for billion-dollar increases in two prominent programs. The first, known as Title I, gives school districts money intended to help low-income students and is the largest federal education program. The second, known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires schools to accommodate students with disabilities.

Noting Monday's federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bush called persistent gaps in student achievement "the great civil rights issue of our time."

"Americans can proudly say that we have overcome the institutionalized bigotry that Dr. King fought," Bush said. "Now our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life."

The announcement came less than two weeks after Bush signed a landmark education-reform bill that requires states to impose new performance standards on students and teachers. That bill is one of the truly bipartisan legislative achievements of his presidency.

Democrats welcomed Bush's proposal but noted that the president has not yet specified how much money other important education programs will get. They said even this latest plan falls short of certain federal funding obligations.

"Democrats on Capitol Hill are still going to complain that it doesn't fully fund the promises made in the education bill that was just signed into law," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The plan also may prompt some sniping from conservatives, who question the track record of the programs into which Bush proposes pouring billions of dollars in new money.

But in calling for such substantial increases, Bush is affirming his commitment to education and making it a symbol of his self-described "compassionate conservatism."

Bush's education agenda has benefited him politically. In recent polls, Americans asked whom they trusted most to improve education, put the president on even footing with congressional Democrats. Traditionally, Democrats have had the advantage on the issue.

Few other domestic programs are expected to get significant funding increases in Bush's proposed budget, scheduled for release Feb. 4, for the 2003 fiscal year. Most increases are expected to be related to the war on terrorism, including defense and homeland security programs.

On Saturday, Bush proposed boosting funding for Title I to $11.35 billion in the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1. That comes on top of a $1.6-billion increase this year.

Administration officials noted that if Congress approves the president's request, the Title I budget will have grown 30% over the last two years, or nearly as much as it grew during all eight years of the Clinton administration.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been among the largest beneficiaries. Last year's increase boosted Title I funding for the district by $87.2 million.

Yet many conservatives have criticized Title I, saying it is an expensive program that has shown little measurable success. Indeed, studies show that the performance gap between poor students and their more affluent peers has not narrowed significantly.

The recently signed education bill includes provisions designed to hold school districts more accountable for their use of the funds. Schools that fail to show progress will, in some cases, be forced to surrender Title I funds given to students' families to hire after-school tutors.

Some critics say those reforms didn't go far enough and express concern that the Bush White House could exacerbate the problem by putting more money into the program.

"The fundamental fact about Title I is that we've poured hundreds of millions of dollars into it and have not had the kind of performance for students we would expect," said Bill Moffit, director of domestic policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Hopefully the expenditure of new funds will coincide with a greater emphasis on getting a good return."

Bush also called for a billion-dollar increase in federal funding for students with disabilities. An estimated 6.5 million students nationwide qualify for special assistance under the 1970s-era IDEA.

If approved, the proposal would raise the appropriation for IDEA grants to $8.5 billion in the next fiscal year. The money goes toward helping districts hire additional classroom aides, provide counseling or make other accommodations.

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