Obama Budget Touts Selective Boosts in Ed. Funding
Education takes a marquee spot in President Barack Obama’s last, otherwise austere, election-year budget request, with his spending plan calling for new investments in community colleges, money to prevent teacher layoffs, investment in school facilities, and funds to spur state action on teacher quality.
But the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal—which also emphasizes the administration’s signature competitive-grant programs while flat-funding key formula grants, such as Title I aid to districts—faces an almost-certain dead end in Congress, where Republicans are seeking to squelch the federal role in K-12 policy and rein in spending.
The president unveiled his $3.8 trillion budget in a speech at Northern Virginia Community College, in Annandale, which emphasized the importance of education and training to the nation’s economic recovery—a central theme of his administration’s message going into the election campaign.
The president is requesting $69.8 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, an increase of $1.7 billion, or 2.5 percent, over the current budget year.
Most domestic programs would see stagnant funding or cuts in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, but the U.S. Department of Education would receive a 2.5 percent increase in President Barack Obama’s proposal. The spending plan also seeks to launch some education-related initiative.
“The skills and training that employers are looking for begins with the men and women who educate our children. All of us can point to a teacher who’s made a difference in our lives—and I know I can,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on the Northern Virginia campus. “So I want this Congress to give our schools the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best teachers.”
Among his budget proposal’s highlights:
• $30 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, including $5 billion dedicated to a competition aimed at bolstering teacher-quality initiatives.
• $30 billion to revamp school facilities nationwide.
• A $300 million increase to the president’s signature Race to the Top competition.
• $8 billion in new money for a Community College Career Fund, which would be jointly administered by the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Labor. The administration is also seeking to retool the $1.1 billion Career and Technical Education program to better align the program with current career demands.
Republican leaders in Congress were swift to criticize the budget plan.
“The administration continues to tighten the federal government’s grip on the nation’s education system, prescribing more intrusion in K-12 classrooms … more unsustainable costs for taxpayers, and more uncertainty for students of all ages,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement.
In particular, Rep. Kline added, “I am troubled by the president’s plan to expand the Race to the Top program significantly, forcing taxpayers to fund an even larger slush fund operated at the sole discretion of the Secretary of Education.”
But the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union—and a powerhouse when it comes to Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts—found much to like in the administration’s budget blueprint, which would include a new $5 billion program aimed at improving teacher quality.
The fact that the Education Department was targeted for the “single largest domestic investment reflects the president’s commitment to education as a way out of the economic crisis,” said Mary Kusler, the union’s director of government relations.
The teacher and school construction money would be part of the previously proposed American Jobs Act, which Congress has refused to approve.
But this time, the White House is putting a new twist on its teacher request: the $5 billion proposal for a new, competitive grant program that would help states take what the administration is billing as big, “bold” steps to overhaul teacher quality. For example, states could use the funds to revamp colleges of education and make them more selective, make sure teachers’ salaries are tied to student achievement, improve professional development and offer teachers more planning time, and craft new evaluation systems.
Mr. Obama also wants to direct a big portion of the nearly $2.5 billion in funding that states now use for class-size reduction and professional development to a competitive grant program. The proposal would siphon off a quarter of the funding—$about 620 million—for competitive grants that focus on a host of teacher-quality issues, including expanding the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers, and bolstering teacher preparation.
Right now, just 1.5 percent of the total funding for state teacher-quality grants is competitive, while the rest is distributed to states by formula. Applicants for the grants include Teach for America, a New York City-based non-profit organization that trains recent college graduates to work in under-resourced schools, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an advanced certification program based in Washington.
“We’re so pleased to see the president’s leadership in fostering innovation and accountability in recruiting and developing teachers and leaders,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of TFA, in a statement, saying it would “do a great deal to build local capacity in fostering the teaching and principal forces necessary to ensure educational excellence and equity.”
Ms. Kusler said the NEA would take a hard look at the details of the set-aside. She says union agrees with the administration that teacher preparation is an area ripe for attention. There needs to be “a broader conversation about ensuring that educators are prepared when they set foot in their classroom,” she said.
The budget proposal continued to fund big Obama administration initiatives. For instance, the Race to the Top franchise, launched under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, would get $850 million, a big jump from the current year’s level of $550 million. Some of the new Race to the Top money would be used for grants to school districts, plus a “significant portion” of it would go to bolster state early-learning programs.
And the Promise Neighborhood program would see a big boost under the president’s budget, nearly doubling from almost $60 million in fiscal 2012 to $100 million in fiscal 2013. The program offers grants to disadvantaged communities to help pair education programs with wrap-around services, such as early-childhood education and health programs.
The department is also pushing for a $100 million increase to the nearly $300 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs. Congress slashed $100 million from the program in the current year’s budget.
But major formula-grant programs would see stagnant funding. For instance, Title I grants to help districts educate disadvantaged children would get $14.5 billion, and special education state grants would get $11.6 billion. The School Improvement Grant program would receive $536 million, the same level as the current year.
Advocates for school districts are less than thrilled with that turn of events.
“We are happy to see that, in a tight fiscal climate, education continues to be bright spot for the administration,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va. “But we are extremely concerned with what we see as a continued preference for investing new dollars in competitive programs instead of investing in the federal flagship programs which fund all K-12 schools, such as Title I and special education.”
The National Association of State Boards of Education echoed that sentiment, even going so far as to point a finger at the implementation problems many states are having with the first round of Race to the Top funds. Late last year, the department released a report showing states are behind on their plans—and even threatened to pull most of Hawaii’s grant if the state couldn’t deliver on a promised teacher-evaluation system.
“We recommend the department takes into consideration how it can help states surmount these challenges before dramatically expanding competitive grant programs,” Jim Kohlmoos, the executive director of NASBE, said in a statement.
Consolidations, D.C. Vouchers
The administration is also proposing to shift 38 smaller, targeted programs into 11 broader funding streams. For instance, it would combine the $27.2 million Ready to Learn television program and the $160 million Striving Readers program to form a $186.9 million initiative aimed at bolstering literacy.
This is the third year in a row the administration has pushed a consolidation plan. So far, Congress has yet to make it a reality. But two different proposals under consideration in Congress for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would reconfigure the Education Department, getting rid of many small programs in favor of broader ones.
On a political front, the president’s budget also would provide no new money for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which offers vouchers to low-income students in the District of Columbia to attend private schools.
That program is relatively small, with $20 million in funding. But it’s sensitive politically, since it’s one of the federal government’s few school choice investments. And U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House and former chairman of the education committee, is a major champion of the program—in fact, a spokesman for the speaker denounced the cut and said it would not stand.
In its budget documents, the administration contends that the voucher program has enough money to provide private school vouchers for students who are currently enrolled in the program in the 2013-14 school year, as well make awards to new applicants.
But Michael J. Petrilli, a vice-president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, said that argument doesn’t hold water.
“By not funding the program this year, the administration is proposing to effectively cap the number of scholarships they can give out,” Mr. Petrilli said in an email.” So the argument that the program ‘doesn’t need the money’ is spurious. They are getting lots of applications, and they won’t be able to meet demand without more money.”
In fact, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Corp., the administrator of the scholarship program, had its first application event for the 2012-13 school year last week. Although the organization gave only five days notice, 700 people attended the event, and the organization received 520 applications, according to a House GOP aide.
Head Start, Nutrition, Higher Education
The president’s budget for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposes an increase in the budget for Head Start of about $85 million, for a total budget of $8 billion.
Last fall, new regulations were released that require early education centers to prove they prepare disadvantaged children for kindergarten in order to hold on to their grants. Some of the increase will be devoted to this new accountability effort for Head Start Centers, which work with about 962,000 children. The federal Office of Head Start has estimated that one in three sites is low performing.
Under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the president recommends a boost in spending in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, which reach more than 32 million students daily. For lunches, the president has requested about $688 million more for a total of about $11.4 billion and another $181 million increase for breakfast, for a total of about $3.5 billion.
About $50 million of the increase will be specifically for training and technical assistance to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Of that, $3 million will be used to oversee and administer new school lunch and breakfast requirements created under the law that include adding more fruits and vegetables to meals, cutting calories and salt, and serving only fat-free or low-fat milk.
The budget request also included many of the higher education proposals the president outlined in a speech at the University of Michigan last month, just days after the State of the Union speech.
Those proposals include an effort to tie campus-based aide such as the Perkins Loan Program and work study in part to student outcomes. Mr. Obama also wants to create a $1 billion Race to the Top program to prod states to improve postsecondary education, and a $55 million “First in the World Fund” to spur innovative practices, such as bolstering technology.
Vol. 31, Issue 21