Obama Signs Leaner Version of America COMPETES Act

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With no fanfare, President Barack Obama last week signed a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, legislation that contains a variety of measures to improve education in the STEM fields.

Among those is a call for greater coordination across federal agencies in their work to advance education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and another to reauthorize and make it easier for higher education institutions to participate in the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program. Also, one of the new programs appears aimed at replicating the "UTeach" model of training math and science teachers.

The Senate passed the legislation in December by unanimous consent, but in the House it was approved by a partisan vote of 228-130, with most Republicans opposed. A chief concern was the bill’s price tag of $46 billion over three years. Given the GOP’s new majority in the House, that resistance could make it tougher to secure funding for existing and new programs authorized under the revised law.

President Obama, a vocal champion of STEM education who has hosted several White House events on the issue, held no special ceremony to sign the measure. Instead, a White House press release simply included it on a long list of bills he signed Jan. 4.

That said, in a blog post last month, White House science adviser John P. Holdren hailed passage of the bill as a “major milestone on this nation’s path to building an innovation economy for the 21st century.”

During floor debate in late December, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee at the time, acknowledged that “there have been concessions made in light of the economic environment.”

Indeed, with time short in the lame-duck session, the House went along wholesale with a scaled-back Senate bill with fewer programs and less funding authorized.

Nonetheless, Rep. Gordon, who retired from Congress this month, said the legislation was crucial to support basic scientific research, foster innovation, and improve education, and would help the nation “maintain its scientific and economic leadership.”

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, the new chairman of the science committee, didn't share the enthusiasm. "This measure continues to be far too expensive, particularly in light of the new and duplicative programs it creates," he said.

Funding Questionable

The legislation had widespread support outside Congress, including from the Business Roundtable, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and university leaders.

The reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act—the acronym stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science—contains many STEM education provisions. For instance, it calls for the creation of a White House panel to better coordinate federal programs and activities in support of STEM education, including at the National Science Foundation, the departments of Education and Energy, and NASA.

Also, the legislation amends the Noyce program to ease the participation of higher education institutions by lowering the financial match they must make from 50 percent to 30 percent. The $55 million program encourages talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers.

In addition, the law authorizes $10 million each year for a new program that observers say is aimed at replicating the UTeach model of teacher preparation first developed at the University of Texas at Austin, or programs akin to that approach. The program would provide competitive grants to universities to launch undergraduate programs that produce high-caliber elementary and secondary STEM teachers.

Whether such new programs will ever be funded is an open question. In fact, many STEM education programs authorized in the law as first enacted in 2007 never received a dime. ("Many Authorized STEM Projects Fail to Get Funding," Feb. 24, 2010.) Recognizing that, at least some were deleted from the law.

Susan Traiman, the public policy director at the Business Roundtable in Washington, said stem education advocates will need to work hard to ensure Congress—especially the new Republican majority in the House—sees the value in continuing to fund such initiatives.

“In terms of everything in it, particularly programs like Noyce,” she said, “what’s going to matter, what’s going to make this real, is what happens in appropriations.”

Vol. 30, Issue 15, Page 22

Published in Print: January 12, 2011, as Obama Signs Pared-Down Reauthorization of America COMPETES Act
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