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Congress Balks at Bush's Education Plan

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The Bush administration's proposed budget for education pushes more resources to the neediest students, both in secondary and in higher education. But the administration would help pay for these increases by cutting other programs that serve the same purpose.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, those tradeoffs practically guarantee that Congress will perform major surgery on the education budget.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Here's the headline everyone in higher ed is happy about. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the administration wants a major boost in the grants that help needy students go to college.

Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (U.S. Secretary of Education): The president has proposed the biggest increase in the Pell Grant in 30 years, up $550 to $4,600 next year and then going to $5,400 over the next five years.

ABRAMSON: Colleges and universities say this increase is long overdue. Unfortunately, they feel the president wants to pay for the increase in Pell Grants by eliminating other forms of aid.

Ms. BECKY TIMMONS (American Council on Education): We read it as a net loss for need-based students.

ABRAMSON: Becky Timmons of the American Council on Education says the administration wants to cut about $800 million in supplemental educational opportunity grants. As a result, she says -

Ms. TIMMONS: By our calculations, about a million needy students will receive less aid under the administration's proposal than they currently receive.

ABRAMSON: Timmons says the White House proposal to increase Pell Grants also depends on hypothetical savings from reform of the Student Lending Program. For that effort to move forward, Congress has to pass separate legislation. If lawmakers don't cooperate, there may not be enough money to pay for the Pell Grant increase.

The White House is budgeting an extra $1.2 billion to help low income kids meet the standards set down by No Child Left Behind. Since that law was passed five years ago, educators have complained they're not getting enough money to cover the costs of administering the program. But educators say the White House increase won't help because it will expand the program to high schools, leaving nothing left over for the primary and middle schools already covered by the law.

At the same time, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, says the president would eliminate other programs that help at-risk high school students.

Mr. BOB WISE (Alliance for Excellent Education): Such as a comprehensive high school improvement fund and for dropout prevention programs, as well as smaller learning communities, that they would either cut the funding or eliminate it. And so that sends the wrong message at the same time that he's doing some very positive things.

ABRAMSON: Disagreements about these big-ticket items are already so strong some analysts have been driven to cynicism. They say the administration is proposing an austere budget with lots of unpopular decisions so it can later negotiate and compromise. The clearest example of that, they say, is the inclusion of $300 million for federal vouchers for families who want to flee failing public schools. That item is so abhorrent to many Democrats it can only be seen as a bargaining chip.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.