Obama Pushes Pre-K, Competitive Grants
President Barack Obama's latest budget proposal envisions a sweeping, multi-billion-dollar expansion of prekindergarten programs and doubles down on the administration's strategy of using competitive grants to drive big change in states and districts—all as school districts try to cope with the largest cuts to federal education spending in recent history.
The budget plan lands in a politically polarized climate on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been consumed with belt-tightening, not new spending. Congress hasn't been able to come to an agreement to reverse a series of across-the-board cuts to just about every federal program, including many in the U.S. Department of Education.
The president's fiscal 2014 budget, unveiled April 10, seeks to put an end to the cuts—known as sequestration—through a mix of tax changes and trims to entitlement programs, such as Social Security. But his initial proposals have drawn fire from both liberals and conservatives, dimming the chances for his preschool initiative and grant proposals in areas such as high school improvement and school turnarounds.
Overall, the Education Department would see a significant funding boost, to $71.2 billion, in a $3.8 trillion federal budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. That's a $3.1 billion, or 4.5 percent, increase over fiscal 2012, the most recent year before the "sequester" took effect in March.
The budget would freeze funding for the two formula programs that districts depend on most—Title I grants for disadvantaged and special education—while quintupling funding for the nearly $60 million Promise Neighborhoods program, which is aimed at helping schools pair education with wraparound services. There would also be new money for charter schools, turnarounds, and principal training.
The proposed increases largely sidestep fiscal realities, said Jason Delisle, a former aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who now serves as the director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, in Washington.
"One major theme [in the budget] is, 'Let's just say sequestration never happened,' but it did," he said. "Sequestration did happen, and we do have spending caps that [President Obama] signed into law, so it seems a little bit abstract to sort of assume those things away."
As announced in the State of the Union address, President Obama is seeking $1.3 billion—and a total of $75 billion during the next 10 years—to expand preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.
The prekindergarten push would also include $750 million for preschool development grants to help states bolster the quality of their to early-childhood-education programs. It would be paid for through a new tax on tobacco products—94 cents per pack of cigarettes, bringing the total federal tax to nearly $2. To help even younger children, the budget plan seeks $1.4 billion for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships.
States would be expected to kick in a portion of the prekindergarten funding, as much as 10 percent in the first year, gradually increasing to roughly 75 percent after a decade. The administration doesn't expect all states to participate in the first year, since they would have to meet quality standards for their programs in areas such as learning standards and teacher quality in order to tap the aid.
The money could be used to offer prekindergarten to children of low-income families, defined as those making at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. States that wanted to go beyond serving those children—expanding the program to middle-income families, for example, or offering full-day kindergarten—would get additional federal help.
State officials appear optimistic about the general direction of the program, even as they pinpoint possible pitfalls.
For instance, Georgia already has one of the most robust prekindergarten programs in the nation, serving roughly 60 percent of 4-year-olds. The federal funding could allow the Peach State to extend its program, said Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.
But Mr. Cagle is cautious about some of the details, including the decrease in federal aid over time, and the funding mechanism, a new tax. "The financing of the plan is our greatest concern," he said.
The tobacco industry has begun mobilizing against the proposed tax hike. David Sutton, a spokesman for the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA Inc., said in an email that tobacco taxes soared by 158 percent four years ago.
"We think it is patently unfair to single out adult tobacco consumers with another federal tobacco-tax increase to pay for a broad, new government spending program claimed to have benefits for everyone," he said.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress—including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee—immediately issued supportive statements.
But Republicans have been less enthusiastic. For instance, Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, raised big questions about pieces of the prekindergarten proposal and said it could amount to "an alarming expansion of government power."
More Race to Top
Lawmakers in both parties frowned on the administration's move to provide level funding for key formula programs that go out to nearly every school district, including the $14.5 billion Title I grants to districts, and the $11.6 billion special education state grants, while bolstering funding for competitive grants.
"Competitive funding seems to reward a state's grant writing rather than the actual [school] system," Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees education spending, told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an April 11 hearing on the budget.
The administration is asking for $300 million for a competitive-grant program aimed at helping high schools better prepare students for postsecondary education and the workplace, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. Districts would partner with nonprofits, higher education institutions, or businesses; rural districts and those serving high-poverty students would be given priority.
Big increases under the budget plan would also go to a host of the administration's marquee programs, including $1 billion for a new iteration of the Race to the Top competitive-grant franchise. This round would reward states for revamping their higher education systems to help colleges improve student outcomes—such as graduation rates—without hiking tuition.
And the administration is seeking a boost for the $533.6 million School Improvement Grant program. The increase—$125 million—would be targeted to a new competitive-grant program to help expand district capacity to support school turnarounds, which has repeatedly been identified as a weak spot in the controversial program.
Increase in 'i3' Support
In another high-profile Obama administration initiative, the budget plan seeks a sizable increase for the nearly $150 million Investing in Innovation grant program, which helps districts and nonprofits scale up promising practices. The increase, $66 million, would be used largely to finance creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education.
The idea has some prominent backers—Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.—but previous proposals have failed to win passage.
In other areas, the administration is looking for new money for charter schools, principal training, and state longitudinal-data systems, which can help states link individual teachers to student achievement.
And the budget includes new programs aimed at bolstering mental health and school safety in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. The package of proposals—including grants to help improve school climate and hire resource officers and counselors—was unveiled by the White House in January.
On the higher education front, the budget would make a controversial change on student-loan interest rates, which are slated to double, to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent, starting this summer. The administration wants to replace that higher rate with a "market-based" -interest rate—the prevailing 10-year U.S. Treasury rate at the beginning of the academic year—without a cap to protect borrowers if interest rates soar.
The general idea is consistent with what some Republicans have wanted, including Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the chairman of the House education committee. He said in a statement that he welcomed the proposal, but was looking forward to further details.
But advocates for college students—a key part of the coalition that backed President Obama's re-election—disparaged the move.
"In the short term, when current rates are low, moving to a market-based rate for federal student loans would save borrowers money, but looking at the big picture, a market-based rate without a cap means that when market rates rise down the road, the result will be students taking on more expensive loans and even greater levels of debt," Abraham White, a spokesman for Campus Progress, said in an email.
That group is the youth arm of the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration.
Vol. 32, Issue 28, Pages 1, 22-23Published in Print: April 17, 2013, as Obama Pushes Pre-K, Competitive Grants in Budget