Education Equity, Pre-K Get Nod in Obama Budget

$68.6 billion Ed. Dept. plan faces stiff test in Congress

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Districts and states would get federal incentive grants to help bridge the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers under a new iteration of the Obama administration's signature Race to the Top competition, rolled out as part of a budget proposal that faces an uphill climb on Capitol Hill.

The program is one of just a couple of K-12 initiatives in the president's $3.9 trillion fiscal year 2015 budget, released March 4. Many of the rest of the education ideas, including a proposal to entice states to dramatically expand their prekindergarten offerings, have been proposed by the president before and have failed to gain traction in a polarized Congress consumed with holding down spending.

What's more, the key formula-grant programs that are popular on both sides of the political aisle and are distributed to nearly every school district—including Title I grants for educating disadvantaged children, special education state grants, money to improve teacher quality, and career and technical education—would be level funded or even cut under the president's budget.

Overall, the White House is asking for $68.6 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, or about a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2014. There isn't a lot of room this year for new spending, thanks to a budget agreement hammered out late last year by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Their plan temporarily rolled back the bulk of automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

But the Murray-Ryan plan also capped domestic discretionary spending, the category that includes education, at close to current levels. And even the relatively modest hike in education spending included in the president's proposal may face opposition on Capitol Hill. Mr. Ryan put forth a report last week questioning the efficacy of a number of education programs, including Head Start.

Biggest Education Expense

Financial-aid programs, including Pell Grants, which help low-income students afford college, make up the single largest funding category in President Barack Obama’s $68.6 billion discretionary budget request for the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2015.

Race to Top Shift

To help districts bolster educational equity, the new $300 million Race to the Top contest would offer grants to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework. It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students with noncognitive skills.

Although teacher equity would be a component of the fund, the proposal is separate from the administration's "50-state strategy" to ensure that states give students in poverty access to as many highly effective teachers as their more advantaged peers.

Dianne Piché, a senior counsel at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington advocacy organization, sees the new program as a great complement to the forthcoming teacher-distribution proposal.

"This money can be really used as change money to help facilitate those [goals]," she said. There wasn't enough emphasis in policies such as the equitable distribution of teachers in the first version Race to the Top, created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, she added. "There were no significant points given to real equity activities in the original Race to the Top grants."

But Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, wasn't sure how a competitive-grant program squared with the idea of increasing equity.

"We question the sincerity behind the call for equity when, by construction, the program creates a system of winners and losers," she said.

For their part, some Republicans criticized the administration's policy priorities—not just the overall spending level.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, said that if the administration is serious about equity, it would seek to expand school choice.

"If the president wants to help put all students on the same starting line, his budget should redirect federal education dollars that aren't helping low-income children as intended, and allow states to use those dollars to create scholarships" as prescribed under legislation Mr. Alexander has introduced.

The White House is also seeking $200 million for a new initiative aimed at bolstering teacher professional development when it comes to using classroom technology, including using student data systems to improve instruction.

It's notable that the main federal K-12 technology program—Enhancing Education Through Technology state grants—vanished under the Obama administration's watch, to the chagrin of technology advocates.

On the higher education front, the White House is also asking for $7 billion over 10 years for a fund to provide bonuses to colleges that bolster graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. And it is seeking $4 billion over 10 years for a fund to encourage states to use "performance-based budgeting"—which would reward colleges based, in part, on results.

Obama's 2015 Spending Blueprint

The president’s fiscal 2015 budget largely holds spending for most education programs at current levels, with a few targeted increases. Some highlights:

Formula Grants

The two largest formula programs that go out to every district would be frozen at current levels—roughly $14.4 billion for Title I grants to districts for disadvantaged students, and roughly $11.5 billion for state grants for special education. The budget also includes $100 million for a competitive-grant program to help schools improve special education outcomes.

And the Improving Teacher Quality state formula-grant program would be cut, to $2 billion, from roughly $2.35 billion this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Teacher Incentive Fund, which offers grants to districts to create pay for performance, would get a boost, from around $288 million to $320 million, in part to make room for a school leadership component.

Meanwhile, two key Obama administration priorities—charter schools, financed at more than $248 million in the current fiscal year, and the School Improvement Grant program, now financed at about $505.8 million—would be frozen at those levels. The SIG program recently underwent a congressional makeover that would give states much more say over how they turn around the lowest-performing schools.

But other signature competitive grants would be slated for increases, including the Investing in Innovation program, which helps school districts scale-up promising practices. The budget seeks $165 million for the fund, an increase of $23.4 million. The request would include nearly $50 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, or ARPA-ED, a research initiative. And the budget seeks a near doubling to $100 million for the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps communities pair education with other services, such as arts education.

Meanwhile, the proposal seeks to eliminate some programs that have champions on Capitol Hill, including the $158 million "Striving Readers" program, a favorite of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 policy and spending.

The nearly $50 million high school graduation initiative, and the nearly $50 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program are also on the chopping block.

Renewed Pitch

The budget plan also makes a second sales pitch for some proposals that Congress hasn't funded yet. The administration is again seeking $75 billion over 10 years for an initiative to entice states to expand prekindergarten programs to more 4-year-olds.

And it asks for $500 million for preschool development grants, which are aimed at helping states improve their early-childhood education programs. Congress already put a $250 million down payment on that request in its fiscal year 2014 spending bills, under Race to the Top. The Education Department still hasn't explained exactly how it wants to use the money.

Related Blog

A version of the prekindergarten program has been introduced as legislation by the two top Democrats in Congress on education issues, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Harkin. So far, lawmakers haven't been able to enact the plan, in part because of its high price tag.

The White House suggested covering part of the cost through a tax hike on tobacco products, but that idea has never gained traction on Capitol Hill.

Also on the early childhood front, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Head Start program, which got a $1 billion increase last year, would see a small boost, from about $8.6 billion to about $8.9 billion.

Also beyond the Education Department, the budget proposes $75 million for the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative at the U.S. Department of Justice. The program received the same amount of funding in fiscal 2014.

And the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget calls for $20.5 billion for child nutrition programs, the agency that covers school meals. That's an increase of about $1.25 billion from current levels.

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this report.

Vol. 33, Issue 24, Pages 20, 24

Published in Print: March 12, 2014, as Equity, Pre-K Get Nod in Obama Budget
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