Obama's 2012 Plan Shelters Education

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In an otherwise austere federal budget proposalRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader for fiscal year 2012, President Barack Obama last week singled out education as an area crucial to the country’s economic future.

He called for bolstering programs he deems critical to his vision for a renewed Elementary and Secondary Education Act and proposed new ones in research, early-childhood education, teaching, and efforts to close achievement gaps.

The $77.4 billion spending plan for the U.S. Department of Education—including $48.8 billion in discretionary funding that forms the core of federal K-12 aid—seeks to continue the administration’s signature Race to the Top competition, put college financial-aid programs on a firmer fiscal footing, and offer financial rewards to high-achieving schools.

And it pursues a plan—first unveiled last year—to re-imagine the structure of the department by funneling 38 programs into 11 broader, competitive funding streams, with an eye to efficiency.

Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Proposals

In a year when many domestic programs face proposed fl at-funding or budget cuts, the Obama administration is looking to launch several new education-related efforts.

“We must eliminate or scale back programs that are not producing results and shift those savings into programs with the biggest impact,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call Feb. 14, the day the plan was released. “Essentially, we must cut where we can, to invest where we must.”

But the proposal faces steep hurdles in Congress—it came just three days after Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives released a plan that would slice nearly $5 billion from the budget now funding the department.

“Throwing more money at our nation’s broken education system ignores reality and does a disservice to students and taxpayers,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. “It is time we asked why increasing the federal government’s role in education has failed to improve student achievement.”

The Obama administration’s proposed $48.8 billion in discretionary Education Department spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, which excludes money for Pell Grant college aid, and represents a 4.3 percent increase over fiscal 2010, the most recent budget enacted by Congress. Lawmakers are still working on the fiscal 2011 spending plan.

Key precollegiate programs and areas would be slated for modest increases: Title I, which has a wide sweep and helps educate disadvantaged students, would get $14.8 billion, up $300 million from current funding; and aid to special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would rise to $11.7 billion, up $200 million.

The proposal also reprises the administration’s ambitious reorganization plan that would consolidate and regroup a wide range of programs under headings focused on particular areas, such as teaching and learning.

For instance, six smaller programs aimed at improving literacy—such as the $250 million Striving Readers initiative and the $19.1 million Literacy Through School Libraries program—would be combined to form one broader, $383 million competitive-funding source aimed at improving reading and writing.

If the consolidation happens, it’s likely to be done through the reauthorization of the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, said Jack Jennings, who heads the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and was a longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

ESEA Ideas

The administration’s proposal for fiscal 2012 includes another idea that could also be incorporated into an ESEA reauthorization: a $300 million increase for Title I grants to districts. Those grants were financed at $14.5 billion in fiscal 2010.

That increase would be used for a new program called Title I Rewards, which would offer financial incentives to staff members and students in high-poverty schools. The program would also offer increased flexibility for districts and schools in using federal aid.

Steven Miletto, the principal at Centennial High School, in Fulton County, Ga., said he would be in favor of the funding, but would like to see leaders allowed to decide how the money would best benefit their schools.

In his case, he’d like to reduce class sizes to help ease the workload of his teachers, instead of offering financial bonuses.

“A monetary payment is probably not going to be enough” to reward staff members, said Mr. Miletto, who was a 2010 finalist for National Principal of the Year. “We want to be able to help them do what they need to do.”

And, under the budget and ESEA proposals, states would have to come up with definitions for “effective” and “highly effective” teachers that would be used to inform evaluation systems in order to tap formula funds aimed at improving teacher quality. The budget would also trim those funds—now called the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants—to $2.5 billion, from the current level of nearly $3 billion.

The spending plan calls for $11.7 billion for state grants for special education—a $200 million hike.

‘Race to Top’ Wrinkle

In addition, the administration wants to continue the Race to the Top program, which was begun as a one-time effort under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The competitive-grant program, which helps support education improvement initiatives, would receive $900 million in fiscal 2012 under the president’s proposal.

But instead of recognizing states for embracing certain education redesign priorities, such as teacher performance pay and charter schools, the revamped program would channel grants to districts. A portion of the money would be set aside for rural districts, although the exact amount has yet to be determined.

The re-envisioned Race to the Top program would also seek to encourage districts to increase productivity during tight budget times by rewarding changes that improve student outcomes while saving money. In the past, Secretary Duncan has called for steps such as increasing class sizes and revamping teacher-tenure rules.

“That is certainly a new signal from a Democratic administration; I don’t think we’ve heard that before,” Mr. Jennings said of the emphasis on cost-effectiveness.

President Obama is also proposing a $300 million continuation of the Investing in Innovation grant program, another initiative under the 2009 economic-stimulus act. The i3 program is intended to help scale up promising school improvement practices through grants to districts and nonprofit organizations.

New Programs

The budget proposal aims to create several new programs, including ARPA-ED, a research initiative modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would be financed at $90 million in fiscal 2012. ("White House Floats New Education Research Initiative," this issue.)

The plan also would establish an Early Learning Challenge Fund, funded at $350 million, which would provide competitive grants to states to help improve their early-childhood programs.

And the budget would scrap the teach grant program, which pays for educator training, and replace it with a new Presidential Teaching Fellows program that would offer formula grants to states to award scholarships of up to $10,000 to individuals who attend high-performing teacher-preparation programs. States could also set aside part of the money to rework certification requirements, in part to make it easier for teachers to change jobs.

Fixing Pell Grants

The Obama proposal would seek a firmer financial footing for the Pell Grant program, which provides money to help low- and moderate-income students attend college. That program faces a $20 billion shortfall in fiscal 2012, in large part because demand for Pell Grants shot up during the economic downturn as more students sought postsecondary education to boost their skills.

The administration is proposing a Pell Grant Protection Act to help deal with the shortfall. It would make changes to the program, while maintaining the maximum grant of $5,550.

And the administration is proposing to cut career and technical education, which would get $1 billion, or $264 million less than last fiscal year.

Though the administration has characterized its spending plans as an attempt to make smart “investments” during tight economic times, even the modest increases being proposed for education face steep, maybe insurmountable challenges on Capitol Hill, analysts say.

“Given the [Republican spending plan] that just came out of the House, I think it’s safe to say there’s no way [administration officials] are going to get these increases for education,” said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst with the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Vol. 30, Issue 21, Pages 1, 30-31

Published in Print: February 23, 2011, as Obama's 2012 Plan Shelters Education
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