President Bush, who wants to establish himself as the "education president," has proposed an Education Department budget that would appear to increase spending significantly next fiscal year. Actually, it would not.

Most of the apparent 9 percent increase -- more than three times the overall rise in federal spending -- resulted from an accounting change that Congress mandated last year. The change, designed to state the true cost of guaranteed student loans, required tabulation of the future costs of such borrowing, not just federal expenditures in the fiscal year that the loans are made.

So instead of a $2.5 billion increase, to $29.6 billion, the actual rise in discretionary spending would be about $800 million, according to the Committee for Education Funding. Bush would spend most of that for various initiatives, with almost half allocated to promote parental choice of schools.

"There is an increase mostly because of the accounting changes. It's almost a flat freeze in the existing education programs," said Susan Frost, executive director of the committee, a lobbying group formed 20 years ago.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, said: "Money is not the answer to everything, but it's a pretty good indication of priorities. When all is said and done, the administration didn't measure up in telling the American people this {education} is a priority."

"I have to be charitable and think he's {Bush} preoccupied with the war," said Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. "There's nothing to back up the rhetoric about his desire to be the education president."

Besides promoting parental choice, Bush's budget would make significant changes in student aid rules, a preview of administration proposals on the Higher Education Act, which Congress is scheduled to reauthorize this session. The department's budget summary outlines new policies that would simplify student aid programs, introduce academic merit as an eligibility criterion and take steps to reduce defaults on student loans.

Ted Sanders, acting education secretary, said the budget also reallocates $1.1 billion from programs that would be eliminated or cut. Several programs are scheduled to receive increases from the reallocated funds to help achieve national education goals, which were used as a framework for the education budget for the first time.

Collaboration among 16 federal agencies yesterday also produced the first tabulation of government spending for mathematics and science education. One education goal is to lift the nation's students to first internationally in those subjects by the year 2000. The interagency math-science budget totals $1.9 billion, an increase of $225 million, or 13 percent.

That budget, which runs more than 300 pages, brings together objectives and priorities in a strategic plan of the kind education leaders have urged Lamar Alexander, Bush's nominee to be education secretary, to adopt for all six of the education goals. The top priority set in math and science is precollegiate education, especially teacher training in the subjects.

Christopher Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said the department has already established management objectives for each of the goals adopted by the White House and the nation's governors.

In addition to achieving preeminence in math and science, the education goals concern preparing preschoolers for school, improving student achievement in several subjects, increasing the high school graduation rate, making adult literacy universal and ridding schools of drugs and violence.

One strategy for achieving those goals, embraced by the White House and governors last year, is expanding parental choice of schools. Bush's budget includes $330 million for "choice" initiatives: $200 million to allow parents to select among public and private schools, $100 million for specialty magnet schools and $30 million for innovative pilot projects.

Sanders said the $200 million "education certificate" program would differ from education "vouchers" because the grants would go to education agencies, not individual students, to cover costs such as transportation. Sanders said districts in Milwaukee, New Hampshire and Vermont currently provide funds to some parents who pick private schools.

The changes in student aid programs would more narrowly target Pell grants on the lowest-income students and increase the maximum award from $2,400 to $3,700. About 400,000 fewer students from middle-income students would get the grants, which are based on family income and college costs.

Sanders suggested those families could compensate for lost grants with guaranteed student loans. The maximum that a student could borrow would rise from $17,250 to $22,000 for five years of undergraduate study. A plan for the federal government to replace private lenders as the source of student loans is being studied, Sanders said.

The administration proposed a single set of rules for determining need for all student aid programs, a cutoff of federal aid to students in the bottom tenth of their college class and a cap on how much proprietary trade schools could charge federally aided students.