Obama Budget Calls for Major Shifts on ESEA

By Alyson Klein — February 01, 2010 9 min read
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The Obama administration is seeking to revamp the signature yardstick used to measure schools’ progress under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed budget for fiscal 2011.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that the administration is still working out details on just how the new accountability system would work under a revamped ESEA, whose current version is the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. He said that the Education Department has not yet determined whether it would keep in place the current law’s 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency, or just how it wants to rework the current requirement that schools and districts make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward that proficiency target for all subgroups of students.

“What we’ve seen in far too many places under No Child Left Behind is that, due to political pressure, … states have dummied down standards [in] what we call a Race to the Bottom,” Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters following the Feb. 1 release of the budget plan.

But he gave few specifics on the reauthorization proposal, saying that it is still being discussed and that “everything is on the table.” The education secretary indicated that the push to include a role for higher standards in the revamped law’s accountability system is likely to build on efforts already under way, such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association to craft common, rigorous standards across states. So far, 48 states have signed on to the initiative.

Meanwhile, the department wants to use a proposed 6.2 percent boost for education included in the budget that President Barack Obama released Monday to put forth incentives to states and districts to improve K-12 schools, continuing efforts already afoot that use funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package passed last year.

The Education Department would receive $49.7 billion in fiscal 2011, compared with $46.2 billion in the current fiscal year, an increase of roughly 6.2 percent, under the Obama administration’s proposed budget. The total includes a proposal to move Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the ledger, meaning they would not be subject to the whims of the appropriations process.

And the proposed budget would consolidate 38 existing Education Department programs into 11 new funding streams aimed at furthering the administration’s key education redesign goals, including improving teacher quality, bolstering standards and assessments, and turning around low-performing schools.

The proposal would provide $3 billion in new money for competitive programs, including $1.35 billion to continue the $4 billion Race to the Top program, a grant competition that rewards states for making progress on certain education redesign objectives. And it would provide $500 million for the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, which is meant to scale up promising practices at the district level. Both those programs were created under the economic-stimulus law.

Builds on Race to Top

The proposal builds on the success to date of the Race to the Top program, Secretary Duncan said. States have revamped their charter school legislation, state data programs, and teacher-evaluation systems to get an edge in the competition.

“When there are real carrots out there, you see tremendous progress around the country,” said Mr. Duncan. “We are absolutely moving in the direction of [more competitive funding] very aggressively.”

If Congress approves a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, the administration will propose a budget amendment that would provide an additional $1 billion for K-12 programs. That request would include new money to reward districts that make significant achievement gains under the law, as well as increases for assessments and programs aimed at extending learning time, according to the budget proposal.

The budget proposal doesn’t give many specifics, but it does say that adequate yearly progress would be replaced by a new metric that “gives a broader picture of school performance and looks at student growth and school progress.” That metric would measure student progress toward becoming ready for college or a career, according to the budget.

Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, said that while the proposal is “better marketing,” it remains unclear just what “college and career ready” would mean. For instance, he asked, how would states be able to tell whether their 4th graders were on a trajectory to meet that goal?

Mary Kusler, the associate director for policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va., commended the administration for setting out broad principles for the federal role in education. But she said she would need to see more details before giving feedback on the proposal.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of poor children, said of adminstration officials: “We believe they are conceptually headed in the right direction. They’re trying to drag states to more-rigorous expectations, … and they’re moving toward a more nuanced set of decisions that don’t make it just pass/fail.”

Competitive Focus

Key programs that distribute funding through set formulas, rather than competitively, such as Title I grants to school districts and aid for special education, would be level-funded or targeted for only small increases, under the president’s budget.

The budget proposal includes a new name for the program of Title I grants to districts: College-and-Career Ready Students. But the program would be financed at the same level in fiscal 2011—$14.5 billion—as Title I grants to districts in fiscal 2010, not including additional money provided to the program under the recovery act.

The 2010 budget financed K-12 formula programs at roughly $20.8 billion, advocates said, and steered $4.2 billion to competitive programs. The proposed 2011 budget would provide $20.3 for formula grants, and $7.8 billion for competitive programs.

Advocates for school districts voiced wariness toward the emphasis on competition.

“The focus on competitive grants and the decision to provide no increase to Title I means rural districts and children in the poorest parts of the country will be left behind,” Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, said in a statement. “Those districts do not have the capacity to compete for grants—unless you want to shift money from teachers to grant writers.”

The proposed budget would also include a substantial boost for the Title I School Improvement Grants, a program that helps districts target interventions to schools struggling to meet the goals of the ESEA law.

The program, which would now be called the School Turnaround Grants program, would receive $900 million under the proposal, a nearly 65 percent increase over fiscal 2010. That does not include money allocated for the grants under the stimulus law.

For instance, the proposal would include $3.85 billion for programs to bolster the quality of teachers and school leaders. That total includes a new $2.5 billion fund called the Effective Teachers and Leaders Grants, which would provide formula grants aimed at helping districts recruit, prepare, reward, support, and retain effective teachers. It would also include a $950 million Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund, and a $405 million program aimed at bolstering pathways for teachers and leaders, including university and district programs and alternative routes to teaching.

Those programs would be paid for in part by scrapping a number of existing programs. For instance, the $950 million Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund would be paid for by consolidating the $400 million Teacher Incentive Fund program and the $10.6 million Advanced Credentialing program. And the budget would eliminate the $2.95 billion Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program, which was generally used by districts for professional development and class-size reduction, including teachers’ salaries.

The budget proposal, which covers the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, would also include a new $450 million funding stream for a literacy program aimed at helping states work with outside organizations, such as nonprofit groups and colleges, to improve reading and writing instruction. The initiative would be paid for using funds typically directed to the $250 million Striving Readers program, the $66.5 million Even Start family-literacy program, the $25.6 million National Writing Project, and other programs.

The budget proposal would make room for another new $300 million program, aimed at improving instruction for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, programs, in part by scrapping the $180 million Mathematics and Science Partnership.

And it would consolidate a number of arts and civic education programs—such as the $119 million Teaching American History program and the $40 million Arts in Education program—into a new, $265 million initiative aimed at providing students with a “well rounded” education.

Congressional Reception Unclear

It’s unclear whether the congressional appropriations committees, which have jurisdiction over spending but are discouraged from creating policy, will go along with the consolidation proposals.

Mr. Barone of DFER, a former aide to Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee, said that most Education Department programs have a vehement champion or two in Congress. That reality could doom the administration’s program-consolidation plans, he said.

“I’d be shocked if any of these programs actually gets repealed,” Mr. Barone said.

Education fared much better in the administration’s proposed 2011 budget than did other domestic programs, many of which were slated for level funding or cuts in administration’s the austere spending plan.

Still, school districts are facing a major drop-off in funding when the up to $100 billion in education aid made available under the stimulus package is gone—a prospect known as “the funding cliff.” The administration is seeking a second infusion of aid for states, in part to avert teacher layoffs. The House of Representatives late last year approved a bill that would provide $23 billion for an education jobs fund, and the Senate is expected to take up similar legislation later this year.

“The funding cliff is going to be a hugely gigantic problem,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition based in Washington.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Obama Budget Calls For Major Shifts on ESEA


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