School & District Management

Clash Looms Over Obama’s Education-Budget Priorities

By Lauren Camera — February 17, 2015 7 min read
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President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget request marks the opening bid in what will likely be a messy spending battle over how to fund the government, including the U.S. Department of Education and federal education programs, when its purse empties Oct. 1.

Notably, the president’s pitch to Congress includes an overall 7 percent hike in discretionary spending, ignoring sequester-level caps, the funding limits set by lawmakers in 2011. Under the request, the Education Department would be funded to the tune of $70.7 billion, a 5.4 percent, $3.6 billion hike over current appropriation levels.

“I’m not going to accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward,” the president said in remarks Feb. 2 after unveiling his budget. “It would be bad for our security and bad for our growth.”

Where Funding Would Go

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 $70.7 billion discretionary budget request for the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2016.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

The budget proposal is a shot across the bow of the newly minted Republican Congress, which has promised to both fund the government through the regular appropriations process and be aggressive in trimming back federal spending. Indeed, House Republicans’ most-recent budgets proposed further lowering spending caps by as much as 8 percent.

Still, that didn’t stop Mr. Obama from requesting money for a slew of new education programs and, for the first time in two years, pitching significant increases for major formula grants, such as Title I for low-income students and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

For the last two years, the president’s budget request proposed level-funding several mainstay education programs that funnel money to every district by formula, instead seeking to push more resources into its signature competitive grants.

Boosting Title I

This year’s request, however, seeks major increases for some of those formula grants. Title I would see a $1 billion hike to $15.4 billion; IDEA would get a modest increase of $175 million, bringing the program to $11.7 billion; and English-Language Acquisition grants, which haven’t seen an increase in years, would receive a $135 million boost to nearly $775 million.

The budget also seeks to continue a host of programs that the Obama administration has put on the chopping block in previous years, including the nearly $50 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, the nearly $30 million Advanced Placement program, and the $25 million Arts in Education program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained during a press call earlier this month that the president’s proposed increased investments in core K-12 programs are an acknowledgement of Congress working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“The last time ESEA was reauthorized, there was an emphasis on devoting more resources, but it came up short,” Mr. Duncan said. “We can’t let that happen again.”

The president is also proposing a sizeable increase of more than $30 million, or about 34 percent, for the Education Department’s office for civil rights to hire hundreds of new employees to investigate civil rights complaints.

The office is currently funded at about $100 million, and recently has been issuing civil rights guidance on everything from single-gender programs to resource equity.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program, which operates early-childhood-education programs for low-income children, would see a $1 billion increase, in part to help programs extend the school day and year. The budget request would also include the president’s previous $75 billion, 10-year proposal to significantly expand preschool offerings at the state level.

For the first time, the administration is not asking for any new money for its hallmark Race to the Top competition, which rewards states and districts for adopting Mr. Obama’s K-12 priorities.

The elimination of the program is “an example of the administration listening more to Congress and understanding that the Race to the Top brand has suffered tremendously in both parties,” said Erik Fatemi, vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a bipartisan lobbying group in Washington, who until recently worked as an aide to Democrats on the Senate panel that oversees K-12 spending.

Instead, the president’s budget seeks increases for competitions that have been less politically toxic, including $300 million for Investing in Innovation, a $180 million increase; $750 million for the Preschool Development Grant program, a $500 million increase; and $150 million for Promise Neighborhoods, a $93 million increase.

New Programs

Federal grants for charter schools would see more than $120 million in increased spending, bringing total appropriations to $375 million, in part to help replicate successful models. And the administration is also seeking to expand and revamp the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create alternative-pay programs. The budget request asks for $350 million for a new version of the program that could be used for broader systems to reward, train, and help develop strong teachers and principals.

And the budget request includes a new $100 million competitive-grant program aimed at helping districts make the best use of federal, state, and local K-12 dollars to improve outcomes for low-income students.

The administration also is seeking funding for new education programs, including $60 billion over the next decade to provide two years of free community college.

The higher education plan is part of a big tax package that would raise the top capital gains tax, hike the amount of inherited money that’s subject to taxes, and impose new fees on financial institutions.

Using the savings freed up by those tax changes, the White House would cover the cost of the community-college initiative, fund a new technical education program, expand eligibility for the existing American Opportunity Tax Credit, and increase an existing tax credit that low-income families receive for child care.

The spending plan also includes a new K-12 program aimed at addressing barriers to success for Native American youth. The $1 billion Generation Indigenous program, a joint effort by the Education Department and the Department of the Interior, would funnel $125 million into school maintenance and construction. It also would boost funding for a host of programs that support Native youths and education in Indian Country.

Education advocates were predictably heartened to see the president ignore the congressionally mandated spending caps, and also to see increased funding proposed for core education programs like Title I and IDEA.

“The president’s budget is always an important message and tone-setter, and the fact that right up front he recommits to the idea of getting rid of the flawed policy of sequester, we see this as a very positive development,” said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the 3 million-member National Education Association.

But Republican lawmakers criticized the proposal across the board.

“We need to address Washington’s spending problem and fix the federal government’s $18 trillion debt, and the way to do it is by reducing the growth of out-of-control entitlement spending,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs both the Senate education committee and the appropriations subcommittee that sets education spending.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, agreed: “A budget reflects priorities, and it’s clear the president’s priorities continue to be more spending, more taxes, and more government.”

In the coming months, Mr. Duncan will head to Capitol Hill to defend the president’s request before the appropriations committees in the House and Senate, where he’s sure to take heat from GOP lawmakers. Then the real work begins as members of each chambers’ appropriation subcommittees try to draft and pass their respective spending bills before sending them to the chamber in time for final passage and the president’s signature by Oct. 1, the end of the current fiscal year.

But with the exception of nominal increases for programs like Title I, IDEA, and early education, most advocates and analysts see it as unlikely that much of Obama’s budget request comes to fruition.

“The administration clearly knows that most of these ideas aren’t going anywhere,” said Anne Hyslop, senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. “They are sending the budget out to the world that doesn’t take into account the spending caps and proposes some bold programs that won’t get any traction.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Obama, Congress Set to Clash on FY16 Budget


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