Education Budget Plan Wielded as Policy Lever
Competition, Streamlining Key Elements
President Barack Obama’s proposed $49.7 billion budget for the U.S. Department of Education is more than just a spending blueprint: Department officials portray it as a fundamental reimagining of the agency’s structure and management.
Under the fiscal 2011 proposal unveiled last week, a roster of 38 relatively small, targeted grant programs would be regrouped into broader, more flexible funding streams—many of them competitive—aimed at furthering the administration’s education redesign goals.
The 11 new funding streams would be centered around such themes as increasing teacher and leader effectiveness, improving curriculum standards, and bolstering readiness for college.
With the current array of smaller programs, “we’re trying to spread ourselves too thin” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters after the release of the plan last week. “Our goal is to become world-class in a smaller number of areas.”
But it’s unclear whether federal lawmakers will go along with a plan calling for programs to be consolidated—or, some fear, eliminated—within a new funding stream.
What’s more, major formula programs—Title I grants to districts and funding for students in special education are prominent examples—would remain stagnant or receive only small increases under the proposal, while there would be a $3 billion boost in competitive funding across the budget.
Such a shift is in keeping with an approach Mr. Duncan has pushed consistently in his first year as secretary, and which is expected to be embodied in the Obama administration’s reauthorization proposal for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“When there are real carrots out there, you see tremendous progress around the country,” Mr. Duncan said. “We are absolutely moving in the direction of [more competitive funding] very aggressively.”
Michael Cohen, who served as an assistant secretary in the Education Department under President Bill Clinton, said the consolidation proposal was “absolutely the right direction” for the agency.
“Those tiny little programs have very limited impact in a very small number of places, and almost never in any systemic way,” he said.
But Mr. Cohen, who is now the president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that helps states raise academic standards, said the proposal was sure to worry the beneficiaries of some of the smaller funding streams—and their congressional champions.
“If you combine five separate programs related to teaching into one larger one still related to teaching, the money is going to go to somebody else,” he said. “That’s where the political fight will be.”
But even advocates for programs that would get a boost, such as charter schools, are wary of the consolidation plan, since it would make funding tougher to predict.
“I think the question comes in how they are going to run these competitions,” said Brooks Garber, the vice president of federal advocacy for the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who applauded the administration’s commitment to charters. “There are no firm and fast numbers to suggest how much schools would actually get.”
Education was one bright spot in an otherwise austere budget year, in which most other domestic programs were frozen in President Obama’s $3.8 trillion fiscal 2011 proposal for the federal budget overall.
The Education Department’s $49.7 billion discretionary-budget figure would amount to an increase of roughly 7.5 percent, and would include at least a $3 billion increase for K-12 programs.
The total includes a proposal to shift Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the ledger, meaning the program would not be subject to the whims of the appropriations process.
Much of the overall increase would go to continue and expand competitive-grant programs created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package that was passed a year ago and that included up to $100 billion for education.
The proposal asks for $1.35 billion to continue $4 billion in competitive grants under the Race to the Top program aimed at rewarding states for making progress on certain education redesign objectives. The competition would also be opened up to districts, not just to states.
And it seeks $500 million for the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, which is meant to scale up promising practices at the district level.
Also, as an incentive for Congress to approve a reauthorization of the ESEA this year, the administration will propose a budget amendment that would provide an additional $1 billion for K-12 programs.
But key programs that distribute funding through set formulas, rather than competitively, would be level-funded or targeted for only small increases, under the president’s budget.
One prominent example: Title I grants to districts, which would be given the new name of College-and-Career Ready Students.
That program would be financed at the same level in fiscal 2011—$14.5 billion—as were Title I grants to districts in fiscal 2010, not including $10 billion in additional money provided to the program under the economic-stimulus program.
And special education funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would see only a 2.2 percent increase in fiscal 2011, bringing it to $11.8 billion, not including $11.3 billion provided to the program under the recovery act.
A shift to more competitive funding would make it harder for school districts to plan, since they couldn’t count on receiving a grant, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington.
“It creates a level of uncertainty,” Mr. Packer said.
Although the budget proposal includes language saying officials would ensure that rural schools got a fair shot at the new money, advocates for those schools worry that they wouldn’t be able to compete on equal footing with larger districts that generally have more resources for going after funding.
“Those districts do not have the capacity to compete for grants—unless you want to shift money from teachers to grant writers,” Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, said in a statement.
Winners and Losers
Programs aimed at furthering the four education redesign objectives spelled out in the recovery act—improving teacher quality, bolstering state data systems, revamping standards and assessment, and turning around low-performing schools—would get most of the increased funding.
For instance, the proposed budget would include a substantial boost for the Title I School Improvement Grants, a program that helps districts target interventions to schools struggling to meet the goals of the ESEA.
The program, which would now be called the School Turnaround Grants program, would receive $900 million, a nearly 65 percent increase over fiscal 2010. That does not include $3 billion allocated for such grants under the stimulus law.
And the budget would include a new, $490 million fund to support effective charter schools and public school choice grants. The initiative would be paid for by consolidating other school choice programs, which received a total of $409 million in fiscal 2010.
And it would allocate $405 million to a program aimed at bolstering pathways for teachers and leaders, including university and district programs and alternative routes to teaching.
But those new funding streams would be paid for in part by streamlining—or scrapping—a number of existing programs.
For instance, the $950 million Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund would be financed by collapsing together—and expanding—the $400 million Teacher Incentive Fund program and the $10.6 million Advanced Credentialing program.
The budget also would eliminate the nearly $3 billion Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program, which has generally been used by districts for professional development and class-size reduction, including teachers’ salaries. In its place would be a $2.5 billion fund, called the Effective Teachers and Leaders Grants, which would provide formula grants aimed at helping districts recruit, prepare, reward, support, and retain effective teachers.
And in the area of literacy, the proposal includes a new, $450 million funding stream to help states work with outside organizations, such as nonprofit groups and colleges, to improve reading and writing instruction. That program would be financed by collapsing six smaller literacy programs, including the $250 million Striving Readers program, the $66.5 million Even Start family-literacy program, and the $25.6 million National Writing Project.
Other programs would be consolidated into larger funds aimed at improving mathematics and science education, bolstering arts and civics programs, and combining programs aimed at health and safety into a broader bucket.
And the administration is proposing to eliminate a handful of tiny programs outright for a savings of $122.6 million, as well as to cut 571 earmarked projects totaling $217 million.
But advocates say the consolidation isn’t likely to attract fans in Congress.
“Both the Reading Is Fundamental and the National Writing Project programs have enjoyed long-standing congressional support, and I don’t see that changing,” said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association.
Besides, he added, “all of these programs have a very specific and vital role.”
Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.
Vol. 29, Issue 21, Pages 1,18-19