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Education Funds a Selling Point on Obama Budget

By Alyson Klein — April 28, 2009 4 min read
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As President Barack Obama works to build support for his fiscal 2010 budget blueprint, supporters—including some outside advocacy groups—are hoping to build support in key states by trumpeting the administration’s plans to boost education funding.

Some education groups feel they have a lot riding on this particular fiscal blueprint, which will set broad spending levels for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The plan, to be fleshed out in coming months, would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $46.7 billion for fiscal 2010. That figure doesn’t include $81 billion spread over multiple years for the Education Department in the $787 billion economic-stimulus package, or a proposed budgetary change in the Pell Grant program for college students.

For education advocates, the 2010 budget offers a chance to press long-sought goals such as making Pell Grant funding more stable and increasing federal aid for prekindergarten programs and child-health services.

“All of these agendas have been sitting out there for a long time,” said Patrick J. McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., who has written about the politics of education.

He said advocates sense a limited “policy window” because of a confluence of factors: a Democratic president, a Congress controlled by Democrats, and a willingness to spend federal money.

Those circumstances have set advocacy campaigns in motion.

Bill Sheibler, the national field director for the United States Student Association, a Washington-based group that represents 4 million students at more than 450 institutions of higher education, said his members have held events nationwide to show support for the student-aid portion of the Obama budget.

“This is the biggest investment we’ve seen proposed in a long, long time,” Mr. Sheibler said of the president’s budget plan. “We’re activating our entire membership around passing this budget.”

Joining Forces

To amplify their voices, a number of influential education and other advocacy groups have joined in a coalition called Renew and Rebuild America.

The coalition, which is composed of about 100 environmental, health, education, labor, and left-leaning organizations, is focused on using grassroots campaigning to persuade lawmakers to stick close to Mr. Obama’s plan as they hammer out their version of the budget blueprint.

Among its prominent members are the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, with which the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.4 million member union, is affiliated, as well as the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Public Education Network.

Some of the coalition’s members have taken to the airwaves on their own. One ad, sponsored by Americans United for Change, a Washington-based, self-titled progressive advocacy organization, touts President Obama’s plan to bolster education funding as part of a broader effort to steady the stumbling economy.

The ad, which was shown on cable and local television in a dozen states, including Maine, Nebraska, and Virginia, begins with a criticism of government priorities during President George W. Bush’s administration. An announcer likens the Bush economy to a “house of cards.” On screen, a literal house of cards is shown tumbling down, and the first card to fall is labeled “education under-funding.”

“Now President Obama has drawn up a budget blueprint that will rebuild our economy on a solid foundation,” an announcer says. “Jobs, health care, education, clean energy—reform.”

Another member of the coalition, the Every Child Matters Action Fund, launched an advertising campaign to highlight Mr. Obama’s proposals to increase resources for prekindergarten programs. (“Ads Aim to Build Political Support,” April 22, 2009.)

Opponents Press Case

The spending plans advanced by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have their share of detractors—and the critics are also finding creative ways to make their voices heard.

The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to get GOP candidates elected to the House of Representatives, has launched TV and radio ads criticizing Democratic incumbents who voted for the House version of the budget blueprint.

The Republican ads don’t mention that some of the money would be directed to education programs.

That’s not surprising, said Mr. McGuinn, the Drew University professor. When President Bill Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress were deadlocked over the federal budget in 1995, Republicans criticized education spending, which turned out to be “a strategic mistake,” Mr. McGuinn said.

“It was very easy to characterize Republicans who were against education spending as being against education,” he said. “Whether or not that was fair, it was really effective.”

Next Step

Both the House and the Senate have approved separate versions of the congressional budget blueprint, which include broad spending outlines that could make room for some elements of Obama’s proposal, such as prekindergarten and college-access programs.

Lawmakers are working to reconcile the two measures. The Obama administration is expected to release a more detailed budget proposal in coming weeks.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as Education Funds a Selling Point on Obama Budget

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