Federal

Obama Budget Plans Selective Boosts in Education Aid

By Alyson Klein — February 21, 2012 8 min read
U.S. Senate Budget Committee assistant Kathleen Llewellyn unloads copies of President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request for Congressional staff on Feb. 13 in Washington.
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Education figures prominently in President Barack Obama’s otherwise austere, election-year budget request, which calls for new investments in community colleges, money to prevent teacher layoffs, funding for school facilities, and aid to spur state action on teacher quality.

But the fiscal 2013 budget proposal—which also emphasizes the administration’s signature competitive-grant programs while flat-funding key formula-grant programs, such as Title I aid to districts—now heads to a Congress where Republicans are seeking to squelch the federal role in K-12 policy and rein in spending. And the fate of many of the Obama administration’s marquee proposals is likely to hinge on the results of the presidential election.

As part of his $3.8 trillion budget, the president is requesting $69.8 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, an increase of $1.7 billion, or 2.5 percent, over the current budget year.

Fiscal 2013 Spending Proposals

Most domestic programs would see stagnant funding or cuts in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, but the U.S. Department of Education would receive a 2.5 percent increase in President Barack Obama’s proposal. The spending plan also seeks to launch some education-related initiative.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; National Science Foundation

“The skills and training that employers are looking for begins with the men and women who educate our children. All of us can point to a teacher who’s made a difference in our lives—and I know I can,” Mr. Obama said in a Feb. 14 speech at Northern Virginia Community College, in Annandale, the day after the budget was unveiled. “So I want this Congress to give our schools the resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best teachers.”

Among his budget proposal’s highlights:

• $30 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, including $5 billion dedicated to a competition aimed at bolstering teacher-quality initiatives.

• $30 billion to revamp school facilities nationwide.

• A $300 million increase to the president’s Race to the Top competition aimed at districts and early-childhood education. Previous rounds of the Race to the Top franchise focused on systemic state reform.

• $8 billion in new money for a Community College Career Fund, which would be jointly administered by the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Labor. The administration is also seeking to retool the $1.1 billion Career and Technical Education program to better align the program with current career demands.

Polarized Response

Education advocates don’t expect Congress to pass the education spending plan by the start of the new fiscal year. In fact, the education budget could get caught up in a broader battle on Capitol Hill over how to reduce the federal deficit. Lawmakers are fiercely divided along partisan lines whether to raise revenue, cut spending, or figure out a compromise. Lawmakers will also have to figure out how to deal with a series of draconian, across-the-board cuts planned for nearly every federal program—including most of those in the Education Department—as of next January, stemming from last year’s failure to reach a long-term deficit-reduction deal. (“K-12 Cuts Loom as Deficit Deal Eludes Congress,” Dec. 7, 2011.)

That means the department’s budget “is in the mix of everything that probably won’t get decided until after the presidential election” in November, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington that seeks to boost education spending. “It’s hard to say right now who will have the upper hand” at that point, he said.

Republican leaders in Congress were swift to criticize the budget plan.

“The administration continues to tighten the federal government’s grip on the nation’s education system, prescribing more intrusion in K-12 classrooms,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. Rep. Kline added, “I am troubled by the president’s plan to expand the Race to the Top program significantly, forcing taxpayers to fund an even larger slush fund operated at the sole discretion of the secretary of education.”

But the 3.2 million-member National Education Association—a powerhouse when it comes to Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts—found much to like in the administration’s budget blueprint, which would include a new $5 billion program aimed at improving teacher quality.

The fact that the Education Department was targeted for the “single largest domestic investment reflects the president’s commitment to education as a way out of the economic crisis,” said Mary Kusler, the union’s director of government relations.

Preventing Layoffs

The teacher and school construction money would be part of the previously proposed American Jobs Act, which Congress has refused to approve.

This time, the White House is putting a twist on its teacher request: the $5 billion proposal for a competitive-grant program to help states take what the administration is billing as “bold” steps to overhaul teacher quality. For example, states could use the funds to revamp colleges of education and make them more selective, tie teachers’ salaries to student achievement, improve professional development, offer teachers more planning time, and craft new evaluation systems.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, is enthusiastic about the proposal, particularly its focus on ensuring that teachers’ salaries are in step with other professions’ and setting a high bar on entry into the profession.

“I really appreciate [it for] acknowledging all of the components” that it takes to create good teachers, starting with “quality at the front door” of the profession, he said.

Mr. Obama also wants to direct a big portion of the nearly $2.5 billion in funding that states now use for class-size reduction and professional development to a competitive-grant program. The proposal would siphon off a quarter of the funding—about $620 million—for competitive grants that focus on a host of teacher-quality issues, including expanding the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers and bolstering teacher preparation.

Right now, just 1.5 percent of the total funding for state teacher-quality grants is competitive, while the rest is distributed to states by formula. Applicants for the grants include Teach For America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that trains recent college graduates to work in underresourced schools, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an advanced-certification program based in Washington.

Competitive Grants

The budget proposal would continue to underwrite big Obama administration initiatives. For instance, Race to the Top, launched under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, would get $850 million, a big jump from the current year’s level of $550 million. Some of the new Race to the Top money would be used for grants to school districts, and a “significant portion” would go to bolster state early-learning programs.

The Promise Neighborhood program would see a big boost, from almost $60 million in fiscal 2012 to $100 million in fiscal 2013. The program offers grants to disadvantaged communities to help pair education programs with wraparound services, such as early-childhood education and health programs.

The department is also pushing for a $100 million increase to the nearly $300 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs. Congress slashed $100 million from the program in the current year’s budget.

But major formula-grant programs would see stagnant funding. For instance, Title I grants to help districts educate disadvantaged children would get $14.5 billion, and special education state grants would get $11.6 billion. The School Improvement Grant program would receive $536 million, the same level as the current year.

Advocates for school districts raised concerns about that turn of events.

“We are happy to see that, in a tight fiscal climate, education continues to be a bright spot for the administration,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va. “But we are extremely concerned with what we see as a continued preference for investing new dollars in competitive programs instead of investing in the federal flagship programs which fund all K-12 schools, such as Title I and special education.”

The National Association of State Boards of Education echoed that sentiment, even going so far as to point a finger at the implementation problems many states are having with the first round of Race to the Top funds.

“We recommend the department take into consideration how it can help states surmount these challenges before dramatically expanding competitive-grant programs,” James W. Kohlmoos, the executive director of NASBE, said in a statement.

The administration is also proposing to shift 38 smaller, targeted programs into 11 broader funding streams. For instance, it would combine the $27.2 million Ready to Learn television program and the $159.7 million Striving Readers program to form a $186.9 million initiative aimed at bolstering literacy. This is the third year in a row the administration has pushed a consolidation plan. So far, Congress has yet to make it a reality.

The president’s budget also would provide no new money for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which offers vouchers to low-income students in the District of Columbia to attend private schools.

That program is relatively small, with $20 million in funding. But it’s sensitive politically, since it’s one of the federal government’s few school choice investments. And U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House and a former chairman of the education committee, is a major champion of the program. A spokesman for the speaker denounced the cut and said it would not stand.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Obama Budget Plans Selective Boosts in Education Aid

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