Published Online: February 3, 2010
Published in Print: February 3, 2010, as Education Dodges Obama's 'Freeze' Pledge

Education Dodges Obama's 'Freeze' Pledge

Increase of Up to $4 Billion in Proposed 2011 Funding Part of ESEA Renewal Bid

Despite a pledge to hold down spending on most domestic programs, President Barack Obama called for greater investment in public schools in his State of the Union address as part of a push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget, which was slated to be released Feb. 1, was expected to include a 6.2 percent increase to the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, including up to $4 billion more for K-12 education. The department’s discretionary budget for fiscal 2010 is roughly $63.7 billion.

If approved, the funding boost would represent the largest increase in federal education spending since at least 2003.

A large piece of the projected increase, $1.35 billion, would be aimed at extending beyond this year the $4 billion in economic-stimulus program Race to the Top grants and opening up the competition—now limited to states—to school districts.

The president highlighted the Race to the Top, saying it had “broken through the stalemate between left and right,” and pledged to expand the reform priorities of that competition—among them turning around failing schools and increasing the supply of effective teachers—to all 50 states.

“The idea here is simple,” he said. “Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform—reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner cities.”

Signaling a top spending priority in the budget to be rolled out this week, President Barack Obama called for up to $4 billion more in aid to K-12 education in his State of the Union address.
—Tim Sloan/AP-Pool

The president is taking the unusual step of calling for an additional $1 billion in education funds that would flow only if Congress is able to pass a renewal of the ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged Jan. 27 in a conference call with reporters that the proposal was unorthodox. “But the president is so deeply committed to education, and there are further reforms we hope to accelerate with this money,” he said.

The fiscal 2011 budget request was expected to include a mechanism for providing the $1 billion sweetener.

The $3 billion increase for K-12 not contingent on the ESEA reauthorization would include hikes for programs ranging from “teacher quality to student safety,” Secretary Duncan said. But the budget would also consolidate 38 Education Department programs into 11. And it would propose eliminating six additional programs.

The administration intended to provide details in its budget announcement.

Bipartisan Cooperation?

The increase for education is expected to be one of just a few bright spots in an otherwise austere budget proposal. Earlier in the week, the White House said that it would call for freezing top-line spending levels for discretionary programs for the next three years.

Mr. Duncan emphasized that education is one issue on which the president expects he can find common ground with Republicans. The secretary said he has spoken with education committee leaders in both the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, as well as Democratic and Republican governors and mayors.

“Everyone wants to see education improve,” he said. “Everyone understands we need to get better.”

Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, recently lost their 60-vote “supermajority” in Congress, when a Republican, Sen.-elect Scott Brown, claimed the seat long held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, a Democratic stronghold.

Republican reaction to the speech was somewhat mixed.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top GOP member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement that he admired President Obama and Mr. Duncan’s “surprising willingness” to challenge unions and other education organizations.

“I am ready to stand alongside this administration in their efforts to loosen the grip of special interests on our schools,” Rep. Kline said. But he added that, in his view, the administration hasn’t been very bipartisan in its push to revamp the federal student-loan program.

Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy, said that “if there’s a major piece of legislation that has a chance to be bipartisan, [ESEA reauthorization] is it,” although “it’s not a slam-dunk.”

Mr. Castle, who is running for the Senate, said the administration and the GOP can find common ground on issues such as merit pay and charter schools.

Education Groups Cheer

Meanwhile, education organizations were heartened by the president’s pledge to spend more on public schools.

“We are delighted that despite the freeze on domestic [spending], education will be spared this year,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

And she said districts would like Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization “sooner rather than later.” Districts, she said, need relief from the “arbitrary” requirements of the NCLB law, such as that they hold back 20 percent of Title I funds for programs such as school choice and supplemental education services such as tutoring.

But it will be important to watch how the administration structures the proposal to make a $1 billion funding increase contingent on the passage of ESEA reauthorization, said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee based in New York City.

If policymakers use the $1 billion as an incentive for passing a strong bill that builds on the education redesign principles advanced in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided up to $100 billion for education, that will be a positive step, he said.

But it could also create a somewhat “difficult dynamic,” added Mr. Barone, a former aide to Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee. Members of Congress could be caught between wanting to deliver money for education to their states through a bill that might not be as strong “and trying to make sure that there’s education reform in your state.”

The proposal “makes the point of illustrating the seriousness” of passing a bill this year, but Congress ultimately crafts the education spending bills, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington. Lawmakers may not go along with the idea of holding some money back, he said.

Student-Loan Push

The president also called on Congress to pass legislation making sweeping changes to the student-loan program and to redirect money from the projected savings to building new school facilities and bolstering community colleges, early-childhood-education programs, and Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college.

The legislation would “revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families,” he said.

The House of Representatives approved the proposal in September on a vote of 253-171. But the Senate has yet to introduce similar legislation.

The House bill—which is based on a proposal put forward by the president in his fiscal year 2010 budget request—would scrap the Federal Family Education Loan Program, under which the government subsidizes private lenders to make federal loans. ("House Loan Measure Would Free Up Cash for Early Education," Sept. 23, 2009.) Instead, all loans would originate with the direct-lending program, in which students borrow from the U.S. Treasury.

The change would save about $87 billion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A portion of that savings, $9 billion over 10 years, would be used to create a competitive-grant program to help states boost the quality of their early-childhood programs, serving children from birth through age 5. The measure also would authorize more than $4 billion to help school districts revamp school facilities, including making them more environmentally efficient. And the bill would authorize grants to help improve community colleges, including remedial education and dual-enrollment programs.

Vol. 29, Issue 20, Pages 17,21

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