Special Report
Federal

Obama Budget Choices Scrutinized

By Alyson Klein — May 18, 2009 7 min read
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Following an unprecedented increase for education aid in the federal economic-stimulus package, President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education is being met with a tepid response from some school advocates.

While few complained outright about the overall funding level, some educators are opposed to specific programmatic choices reflected in the spending plan, such as a proposed $1 billion shift in funding within Title I, the flagship federal K-12 program.

Department officials say that some choices in the budget plan must be viewed in the context of up to $100 billion for education programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which the president signed into law in February.

President Obama is also seeking room to fund his priorities—including performance pay, turnarounds of low-performing schools, and extra resources for high schools—while holding down spending, administration officials say.

Still, advocates contend education programs were underfunded during the eight years of the Bush administration, and they are looking for substantial help for their favored programs from President Obama, who campaigned on pledges of increasing federal education spending.

Twin Streams

Title I and special education funding would dip or remain flat under President Obama’s proposed budget, but both are getting extra aid in the stimulus package.

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Some analysts say the nation won’t get a clear picture of Mr. Obama’s spending plans until his fiscal 2011 budget proposal is released next year.

“They are already making some difficult decisions, but the next budget will be more significant,” Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said of administration officials. Next year’s proposal “will signal whether the stimulus package was a fluke,” he said, particularly in terms of its historic increases to states for special education and in Title I grants to school districts.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal, released May 7, would provide $46.7 billion for the Education Department, an increase of $1.3 billion, or 2.8 percent, over fiscal 2009. (“Budget Would Boost Incentive Pay, Turnaround Aid,” May 13, 2009.)

The figure does not include the stimulus spending or a proposed change in the Pell Grant program for college students that would shift it from discretionary to mandatory.

Title I Shift

One of the most controversial proposals in the 2010 spending plan would move at least $1 billion from Title I grants to districts to Title I school improvement grants, which help finance interventions for schools struggling to meet the goals of the 7-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.

Title I grants to districts, which help pay for educating disadvantaged students, received $10 billion over two years under the stimulus package, and $14.5 billion in fiscal 2009. The program is slated for $13 billion under the Obama budget—a 10.4 percent cut, without factoring in the stimulus increase.

Dilcia Molina, at rear, runs a class on parenting at the Family Place in Washington. The community center would lose funding for its Even Start family-literary program under the budget the Obama administration has proposed for fiscal 2010.

Title I school improvement grants, which help finance interventions for low-performing schools, also got a windfall of $3 billion in the stimulus package. The program received $545.6 million in fiscal 2009, and Mr. Obama has suggested tripling that amount to $1.54 billion in fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1.

But Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying coalition, said the decision puts districts in a tight spot when it comes to planning.

“I hate to complain about having money showered down us, but it creates a tremendous distortion in school budgets and programming to have to spend that [stimulus] money very quickly and see it disappear in the following years,” Mr. Kealy said.

But other advocates said they thought the administration was targeting the funds where they would be most needed.

James Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington organization that promotes research in education, said that the federal government needs to invest in struggling schools: “To me, that’s key, that’s where the attention should be.”

Comprehensive Package?

Mr. Kohlmoos said the approach complements other proposals in the president’s budget, including a plan to boost funding for the Institute of Education Sciences to $689 million in fiscal 2010, an 11.7 percent hike. Much of that increase would be directed to research, development, and dissemination of promising practices.

WINNERS

Teacher Incentive Fund: Grants to school districts to create pay-for-performance programs. Program received $97 million in fiscal 2009, slated for $517 million in fiscal 2010, on top of $200 million in the stimulus.

School Improvement Fund: Funding for schools struggling to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. Funding would nearly triple to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2010, on top of $3 billion in the stimulus.

Reading: Boosting appropriations for the Striving Readers program to $370.4 million, including $300 million for new Early Literacy Grants and a doubling of funds for the Adolescent Literacy program to $70.4 million.

High School Initiative: A new, $50 million competitive-grant program for high schools and their feeder middle schools to help curb the dropout rate.

LOSERS

To Be Eliminated:

• Safe and Drug-Free Schools State Grants, $294.8 million

• Even Start family-literacy program, $66.5 million

• College Access Challenge Grants, $66 million

• Mentoring program, $48.5 million

• Civic education program, $33.5 million

• Character education program, $11.9 million

• Ready to Teach program, $10.7 million

• Javits gifted and talented program, $7.5 million

• National Institute for Literacy, $6.5 million

• Academies for American History and Civics, $1.9 million

• Close Up Fellowship, $1.9 million

• Foundations for Learning, $1 million

Education Technology State Grants: Program that helps districts integrate technology into classrooms would be slashed to $100 million in fiscal 2010, from $269.9 million this year. (Note: Program received $650 million under the stimulus package.)

Abstinence Education: The Community-Based Abstinence Education and Title V Abstinence Education programs—which together got $133 million in fiscal 2009—would be eliminated. Their replacement: $110 million in grants to teenage- pregnancy-prevention programs.

Sources: U.S. Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services

“If you look at all those things as a package, it really is a comprehensive approach to try to move the ball forward on research-based innovation that has a specific goal in mind of school improvement,” Mr. Kohlmoos said.

But Mr. Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee for nearly three decades, said he was surprised by the choice to shift Title I dollars to school improvement and doesn’t “think it’s the wisest policy.”

The school improvement program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act but did not receive any funding until fiscal 2007, is still relatively new, he said. States are still building the capacity needed to help transform the most troubled schools.

“It’s not going to be like turning on a switch, where they can suddenly produce 100 turnaround specialists in Michigan,” he said.

Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that states “have a lot more money than they’ve had before to get this right. This investment in the school improvement program is the best chance of having an impact where it’s needed the most.”

Paying for Performance

One of the big winners under Mr. Obama’s proposal would be the 3-year-old Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts finance pay-for-performance programs.

The request of $487 million for TIF is more than four times what the program received during the previous appropriations cycle.

On top of the $200 million appropriated through the stimulus package, such an increase would likely seed dozens of new grants. Although TIF has received continuation funding, it has not expanded beyond its initial 34 sites.

The budget request indicates, however, that the administration plans to tweak some elements of TIF. The administration aims to expand the program, the proposal indicates, to permit noninstructional personnel, such as counselors, custodians, and food-service workers, as well as teachers and principals, to take part in TIF-funded pay systems.

The national teachers’ unions reacted to the budget with some wariness. Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said the Education Department’s application criteria should require districts to develop the pay plans through the collective bargaining process—or, in nonbargaining states, to require a majority of teachers to approve them.

“I think if they want it to work, that is an essential ingredient,” Ms. Weingarten said.

The president’s 2010 budget also seeks to invest in reading, after Congress scrapped the $393 million Reading First program.

The program, which was created as part of the NCLB law and was originally funded at nearly $1 billion a year, came under fire after a series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general suggested that conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program in its early years.

But even critics of the program’s implementation were loath to see the loss of federal dollars for reading programs. They urged the Obama administration to come up with an alternative.

In response, the administration is seeking to double funding for the Striving Readers program. The increase includes $300 million for Early Literacy Grants, a new demonstration program that would allow districts to test strategies to improve students’ reading comprehension.

“Comprehension” is one of the key words in that program description, said Susan B. Neuman, who served as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during President George W. Bush’s first term.

Ms. Neuman, who helped establish the original Reading First program, pointed to a federal study that showed the program didn’t have sufficient impact on students’ understanding of a text.

But she was less enthusiastic about another of Mr. Obama’s reading proposals, which would seek to nearly double funding for adolescent-literacy programs, from $35.4 million to $70.4 million.

It would be better to see the money invested in research, said Ms. Neuman, now a professor at the University of Michigan. “People are clueless about what to do about high school and reading,” she said.

Cuts or Level Funding

But the budget proposes flat funding—or cuts—for other programs. State grants for special education, for instance, would receive $11.5 billion, the same level as in fiscal 2009. That figure does not include the $11.3 billion over two years that the program received under the stimulus package.

And the budget proposes $1.16 billion for grants to states for career and technical education, about the same as in the current fiscal year.

Other programs that saw steep hikes in the stimulus package were reduced. One example is the Education Technology State Grants, which help districts integrate technology in the classroom.

Twelve programs in the Education Department are being targeted for elimination in the Obama plan.

Among them are the $66 million Even Start family-literacy program and the $295 million Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities State Grants.

Staff Writers Christina A. Samuels and Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama Budget Choices Scrutinized

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