Education Programs on the Budget Chopping Block

Education programs are likely to take a hit as members of Congress consider cutting spending to pay for the Iraq war and hurricane reconstruction. Possible cuts include funding for the popular Head Start program and aid for college loans.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the next few days, the House and the Senate will try to agree on spending cuts to pay for the war in Iraq and hurricane recovery efforts. Although Democrats and Republicans don't agree on which programs to cut, one thing seems certain. Federal funding for education is going to take a hit. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Even before Katrina, dozens of US Department of Education programs were targeted for elimination. With more cuts on the way, the programs that survive will receive little or no new money. K through 12 education, for example, would get an increase of 3/10ths of 1 percent, the smallest increase in eight years. The government's share of special education funding would drop. The Congressional Budget Office says the school lunch program may have to trim 40,000 low-income children from its rolls. Even the $7-billion Head Start program, popular among Republicans and Democrats, could lose $82 million and force programs to curtail services.

Mr. RON HERNDON (Chairman, National Head Start Association): There are only so many places that you can cut.

SANCHEZ: Ron Herndon runs a Head Start program in Portland, Oregon, and chairs the National Head Start Association.

Mr. HERNDON: You're talking about reducing services to the most at-risk families in this country. And I don't know if people understand, when you look at what occurred with Katrina, many of those families, those were Head Start families, and essentially what you're saying to those families now, `We're going to punish you one more time,' for it is beyond cruel what is being proposed.

SANCHEZ: No one, though, is likely to get squeezed more than college students. Republicans in the House of Representatives want to wring about $15 billion from the federal student loan program over the next five years, mostly by cutting government subsidies to private lenders who issue student loans. Howard "Buck" McKeon, Republican of California, sits on the House Education Workforce Committee. He says these are hard times for everyone.

Representative HOWARD "BUCK" McKEON (Republican, California): With limited resources, you have to try to help the neediest, those who are trying to get onto that ladder to climb the American dream. That's why we've increased the loan limits for them. That's why we've reduced their loan fees and the overall costs of loans for them to get into school.

SANCHEZ: Under the Republican plan, says McKeon, student aid will actually increase, but that's a hard sell on campuses like the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

(Soundbite of voices)

SANCHEZ: The financial pressure on students here isn't just coming from Congress. The costs of going to college in Kentucky this fall went up 14 percent, the second-highest increase of any state in the nation. Tuition at the University of Louisville is $2,900 this semester. Hendra Pruitt(ph), 19, a sophomore, says government aid for college has never been more important.

Ms. HENDRA PRUITT (Student, University of Louisville): It's extremely important. I mean, I come from a single-parent family. There's no way my mom can pay for my--so without--I'm I'm strictly reliant on Pell grants and different financial aid. And without it, it would be very difficult for me to go to school.

SANCHEZ: Like many students in this humanities class, Nathan Bond(ph), a math major, has to work to pay for school. He puts in 33 hours a week at UPS, goes in at 10 at night and punches out at 6 in the morning.

Mr. NATHAN BOND (Student, University of Louisville): So, you know, I go home, get three hours of sleep and go to class all day. I go home, sleep a couple hours, get up and go to work. And you're looking at four to five years of that, and sometimes you get--like, I know I've missed this class sometimes just because I oversleep. I just--there's not enough time in the day for me to be able to sleep, to get all the studying that I need, so I'm really not getting the high-quality education that I could have.

SANCHEZ: Even after receiving the maximum amount of government aid, studies show that low-income students at four-year public institutions are still short about $4,000 on average. And if Congress gets its way this year, students' groups say the average debt for college graduates will go from nearly $18,000 to over $22,000.

Rep. McKEON: No, I don't agree with that.

SANCHEZ: Representative Bud McKeon says the Republican plan will make borrowing cheaper. He says criticism of the plan is simply an attempt to make Republicans look like villains when it comes to education funding.

Rep. McKEON: Let's go back and look at the facts. Over the last 10 years, since we've been in charge, we've put a lot more money into education than the Democrats did the previous 10 years.

SANCHEZ: Today and in the next few days, House and Senate negotiators will try to reconcile which education programs to cut and by how much. Democrats plan to debate the student loan issue well into next year. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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