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Published in Print: February 17, 2016, as Obama Budget Doubles as Policy Document

Obama Budget Doubles as Policy Document

Next: A Skeptical Congress

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President Barack Obama's final budget blueprint seeks to continue federal investments in long-standing priorities—including early-childhood education and scaling up promising district practices—and a new area of focus: socioeconomic integration.

The spending plan, which the GOP Congress is unlikely to adopt wholesale, would largely take effect in the 2017-18 school year. That's the first year that schools will be operating under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Obama administration's fiscal 2017 spending plan makes room for some new ESSA programs, including a flexible block grant for districts and resources to help states and districts pare back the number of tests students take. But it would essentially flat-fund programs that nearly all school districts depend on to educate students in special education and those who are disadvantaged or in low-performing schools.

The budget asks for a modest boost overall for the U.S. Department of Education—$69.4 billion in discretionary funding, or a 1.9 percent increase over current levels.

"The president's budget reflects the administration's broader efforts to expand opportunity and ensure every child can achieve his or her full potential," said acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a statement. "We have made tremendous progress with record high school graduation rates and more students of color going to college, but we have further to go to ensure that educational excellence is a reality for all students."

GOP lawmakers, however, quickly threw cold water on the president's $4.1 trillion proposal for the federal government as a whole.

"Once again, President Obama's proposed budget spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much, and won't go anywhere in a Republican Congress," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, said in a statement. "Instead of confronting our $19 trillion federal debt, President Obama wants to keep us on an unsustainable fiscal path that would pass along even more debt to future generations."

Integration Focus

Dividing the Pie

Proposed discretionary spending on education in federal fiscal year 2017 falls into a few broad categories, with financial aid for higher education, including Pell grants for low-income students, continuing to make up the largest slice.

The Education Department budget request includes $120 million for Stronger Together, a new competitive-grant program aimed a helping schools become more socioeconomically diverse.

The money would go to districts, or groups of districts, that have big achievement gaps and problems with socioeconomic integration. The grants could be used either to help those districts figure out a plan to address the problems or to implement a strategy that's already been devised.

The focus on integration isn't a surprise: King has made the issue a theme of recent speeches.

And in a blog post published Feb. 9, the day the budget was released, he made the case for the new grant program, arguing that diversity can help get better outcomes for all students—and that it can help address big gaps in resource equity.

"It's hard to miss the fact that when the children of welders and bankers are confined to separate schools, access to opportunity is not equal," King wrote. "It's no secret whose school ends up with the resources to succeed—from shiny new buildings with updated technology to Advanced Placement courses that will set them up for success in college."

The integration emphasis is carried over into other parts of the education budget request. The president also wants $115 million for magnet schools, up from $96 million currently, in part for competitive grants to support desegregation efforts.

Plus, the budget seeks an additional $17 million for the charter school program, which would bring it to $350 million. The department would target funding for expansion grants to charter-management organizations that operate racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.

But for his part, Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, was unhappy with the priority of the new program on socioeconomic integration at the expense of racial integration.

"Racial isolation still plagues the nation's elementary and secondary school system," he said in an email. "The new socioeconomic-integration proposal redirects attention and funding away from the continuing need for traditional integration of students."

While Simering doesn't expect the proposal to come to fruition given the tight budget climate, he would rather see $120 million more put toward magnet schools or Title I grants for disadvantaged students.

Complicated Picture

Special education grants to states, the main education program for students with disabilities, would receive $11.9 billion, the same level as last year under the administration's proposal. The total request for special education—which also includes a number of smaller programs—is about $13 billion, or $90 million more than last year.

The picture for Title I programs, which are aimed at helping disadvantaged students, is more complicated.

Last Pitch

President Barack Obama’s final budget plan for the U.S. Department of Education proposes a modest overall hike of $1.3 billion, or 1.9 percent, which would bring its budget to $69.4 billion. It also seeks new investments in encouraging schools to become more socioeconomically integrated, and boosts longtime Obama priorities. Among the highlights:

The administration's request for Title I grants to districts includes a $450 million increase over current levels.

But that additional money would, in effect, come at the expense of another Title I program that was eliminated under ESSA: the School Improvement Grant, which provided funding to districts via the states to turn around low-performing schools. The SIG program received about $450 million in fiscal 2016, and the budget request would just add the former SIG money into the broader Title I program. What's more, states will be directed to use their increase in Title I funding largely to cover school improvement activities.

The plan also includes increases for a handful of programs that were enshrined in ESSA, including:

• $350 million for Preschool Development Grants, which moved from the Education Department to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under ESSA. That would be an increase of $100 million over current levels. The budget also seeks $9.6 billion for Head Start, also administered by HHS, an increase of $434 million over current levels.

• $180 million, or a $60 million hike, for Education Innovation and Research—the program in ESSA that succeeded Investing in Innovation, the Obama administration's grant program that sought to scale up promising practices at the district level.

• $128 million, or an increase of nearly $55 million, for the Promise Neighborhoods, which helps communities pair wraparound services, such as health and arts education, with academics.

• A $25 million increase for state assessments, which would bring the program to $403 million. The proposal would cut state grants for assessments that go out by formula to $350 million from nearly $370 million.But it includes $18 million in new money to help states and districts audit their testing systems and eliminate assessments that are redundant, not particularly useful, or of low quality. It also seeks an additional $25 million to help states develop innovative assessments.

The department also wants $500 million for a new program created under ESSA, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Program. Essentially a big block grant for districts. The program consolidates a number of smaller ones aimed at student health, safety, college readiness, technology, and a well-rounded education.

Shift to States

The department's request, which is about one-third of the $1.6 billion authorized for the block grant under ESSA, would seek to give states more control over how districts spend these funds. It would allow them to provide the money competitively, instead of by formula, as under the new law. Grants issued by states would have to be at least $50,000 each.

Under ESSA, districts that get at least $30,000 in funding from the new program have to adhere to spending guidelines: They have to direct at least 20 percent to an activity that gets at student health and safety, plus at least 20 percent to something that helps them get a well-rounded education. And they can't spend more than 15 percent on technology infrastructure. Under the department's proposal, there would be fewer grants, but all of them would be large enough to be subject to these rules.

The request includes some items that the administration has already telegraphed, including $4 billion in mandatory funding to improve computer science education.

And it recycles pieces of long-standing proposals that Congress hasn't acted on yet, including $80 million for "next generation" high schools that put a focus on technology, and a $1 billion RESPECT initiative to improve the teaching profession. It also renews a request for $75 billion over 10 years for a Preschool for All Initiative.

Vol. 35, Issue 21, Pages 14,18

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