WASHINGTON – State education officials said that until Congress approves a budget for fiscal 2001, Maryland cannot make its own plans, including whether it can spend $84.3 million that is tied up in the federal budget.
The funds for hiring teachers, improving special education and fixing schools, are part of almost $8 billion in increased federal funds for education that have been agreed to by lawmakers, but are being held up in budget battles.
“Nobody knows what we have and don’t have,” said Neil Greenberger, a state Department of Education spokesman. “It’s hard to plan for programs when you don’t know what’s coming from the federal government.”
Greenberger said the delay in funding will not affect fiscal 2001, which began on July 1 in Maryland, but that planning for future programs will be difficult, even though “checks don’t have to be passed yet.”
But Republican members of Congress said state and federal education officials are creating an issue where none exists, assuring that the extra money will be approved.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said the education part of the budget “has been worked out” and is simply being held up because education is part of the Health and Human Services and Labor appropriations bill.
“The hold up is over ergonomics, the Department of Labor. It has nothing to do with education anymore,” said Gilchrest.
Even with the delay, he said, Maryland schools should not be affected because most of their money comes from state and local governments anyway.
“Ninety percent is state and local. When you consider the amount of federal funding, it’s very small,” Gilchrest said.
A U.S. Department of Education statement urging Congress to act on the budget outlined what’s at stake for each state. In Maryland, programs that could be affected, among others, include:
— $6.5 million to reduce class size by hiring more teachers.
— $3.8 million to upgrade teacher skills and quality.
— $7.7 million to improve reading and math.
— $15.8 million for school renovation grants.
— $5.1 million for after-school programs.
— $27.6 million for special education grants.
On top of the state’s list of priorities are hiring teachers and upgrading teacher skills and quality. Greenberger said that without the $6.6 million geared to reducing class size in Maryland, “an estimated 165 teachers would be at risk.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said both parties in Washington have already agreed to increase funding. The disagreement focused more on who controls how the money is spent.
“The fight is not really over the money. There is very little reason the Department of Education had to paint a picture of gloom,” said John Feehery, spokesman for the speaker.
But Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said that while the Republicans and Democrats agreed to increase funding before the election, “now there is talk that Republicans may reverse themselves.” He said that would hurt Maryland public educational programs like reducing class sizes and supporting special education.
“It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to get there. It (the increase) may be lowered, but it won’t be eliminated,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer rejected Republican arguments that funding less than the promised increase would not hurt schools, but would just mean the schools are “not being advantaged.”
Hoyer said that not funding the full increase is “almost as bad as being hurt.”
Both Gilchrest and Feehery said they were upset with the U.S. Department of Education for “playing politics” with the bill, releasing a statement that accused the Republican-led Congress of bottling up the proposed increases.
“The U.S. Department of Education is a department within the president’s Cabinet. They’re using taxpayer money,” Gilchrest said. “They’re the ones who broke the agreement.”