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Obama Budget Would Invest in Pre-K, High School Overhaul

By Alyson Klein — April 10, 2013 7 min read
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President Barack Obama’s budget unveiled today proposes new money for a big expansion of prekindergarten programs, a new competitive-grant program for high school improvement, a new Race to the Top competition focused on higher education—and level funding for the two formula grants school districts depend on most: Title I grants for disadvantaged students and special education.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education would see a significant funding boost to $71.2 billion for fiscal year 2014 that starts on Oct. 1 in a $3.8 trillion overall federal budget. That’s a 4.6 increase over fiscal year 2012, the most recent year before a series of automatic cuts—known as sequestration—took effect.

As announced in the State of the Union Address, the president is seeking $75 billion over the next 10 years for a major expansion of preschool programs for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. The program would be paid for through a new tax on tobacco products of 94 cents bringing the total federal tax to nearly $2 per pack. The initiative also would include a $750 million investment in preschool development grants to help states expand access to such services and improve program quality.

“This would constitute the largest expansion of educational opportunity in the 21st century,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in an afternoon press call.

States would be expected to kick in a share of the funding. The administration envisions that the federal share would be as high as 90 percent in the first year, gradually declining to roughly 25 percent after a decade. The administration doesn’t expect all states to participate in the very first year, since states would have to meet a variety of quality standards for their programs in order to tap the federal funds.

States would be able to use the money to offer prekindergarten to low-income families, defined as those making at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. States that want to go beyond serving just those children, expanding the program to more middle-income children, for example, or offer full-day kindergarten, would get more funding from the funds to help.

The entire price-tag of the program would be paid for using the tobacco tax, and the industry is not particularly happy about it. David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA Inc., said in email that tobacco taxes soared by 158 percent four years ago, making another tax difficult to weather. And he added, “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.”

The budget would also include $1.4 billion for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, as well as $15 billion over the next 10 years to extend home-visiting service for at-risk children.

And the proposal also includes a new, $300 million competitive-grant program aimed at helping high schools better prepare students for post-secondary education and the workplace and focus on science, math, engineering, and technology. The grants are envisioned as partnerships between districts, and either non-profits, higher education institutions, or business. School districts that serve high-poverty students, and rural districts would be given priority for the grants.

Meanwhile, most key formula grant programs would get level funding, including Title I grants to districts at $14.5 billion, and special education state grants at roughly $11.6 billion. Career and technical education, the biggest federal program for high schools, would be financed at $1.1 billion, and Improving Teacher Quality State grants would also be level funded at nearly $2.5 billion. The department could reserve up to a quarter of those funds for a competitive-grant competition—a proposal the administration pushed last year that didn’t go anywhere in Congress.

The lack of increases for key formula programs hasn’t made U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, too happy.

“I remain highly concerned about several of the president’s other education proposals in the budget request, including freezes in funding for Title I and [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act],” he said in an emailed statement. “These programs form the foundation of federal support for K-12 education, and they remain the most effective way to invest in our students’ future and in our nation’s economic competitiveness.”

School safety and mental health was another major priority in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. The administration has proposed a variety of new programs across a few different agencies that largely align with the package of proposals the White House outlined in January, a little over a month after the shootings in Connecticut.

The Department of Education’s budget includes $50 million for new School Climate Transformation Grants to help reduce behavior problems, and bullying, as well as $30 million for emergency management planning grants. It also includes $25 million for Project Prevent grants to help school districts combat pervasive violence through counseling services for post-traumatic distress disorder, conflict resolution programs, and other strategies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would administer a $130 million initiative including $55 million to train educators and others to recognize the signs of mental illness early, $50 million to train new mental health professionals, and $25 million to help adults 16 to 25 access mental health services. And the Department of Justice would receive $440 million for community policing, a portion of which could be used to hire school mental health professionals and school resource officers.

Other new investments would include:

• $300 million for the Promise Neighborhood program, which seeks to pair education with wrap-around services, such as health programs and arts education. That’s an increase of $240 million.

• $1 billion for a new, Race to the Top competition aimed at providing competitive grants to states to help colleges improving student outcomes—such as graduation rates—without hiking tuition.

• A big increase for the School Improvement Grant program, including $125 million for a new competitive-grant program to help expand district capacity to support school turnarounds, which has repeatedly been identified by critics as a weak spot in the SIG program.

• A big increase for the Investing in Innovation grant program, which helps districts and non-profits scale-up promising practices. The budget would include $215 million for the program, a $66 million increase. The funding boost would be used largely finance a new research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, which has some powerful backers in Congress: Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

• A slight increase for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers to $1.3 billion. The program would be focused more on extended learning time, which has been a priority for the administration.

•An increase for the Expanding Educational Options program, which helps finance charter schools. The budget would include a $40 million boost for the program to expand “high quality options” which appears to be generally consistent with charter school legislation that was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last year by big, bipartisan margins.

On higher education, the budget makes an interesting choice on student loan interest rates, which are slated to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent starting this summer. The administration wants to replace that higher rate with an unspecified, “market-based” interest rate. The general idea is consistent with what some Republicans have wanted, including U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee. He said in a statement that he “welcome[d]” the proposal, but was looking forward to further details.

This is the first budget since Congress enacted a series of sweeping, across-the-board cuts to just about every federal program, including many in the U.S. Department of Education. The cuts, which total 5.2 percent this year, are slated to stay in place unless lawmakers come up with a deal to avert them.

The president’s budget would seek to put an end to sequestration through a mix of tax changes and by trimming entitlement programs, such as Social Security, codifying the administration’s position on a so-called “grand bargain” with Republican leaders to reduce the deficit. But so far, the president’s initial proposals have gone over like a lead balloon among both liberals and conservatives in Congress.

At least one congressional Republican—U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, raised big questions about pieces of the prekindergarten proposal, saying it could amount to “an alarming expansion of government power.”

Photos, from top: President Barack Obama, accompanied by acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday to discuss his proposed fiscal 2014 federal budget. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Copies of President Barack Obama’s budget plan for fiscal year 2014 are distributed to Senate staff on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)