As part of a budget plan designed to reshape federal support for education, President Barack Obama is seeking to consolidate more than a dozen discrete programs into three broader, competitive funds focused on “effective teaching and learning” across the academic-content areas.
The proposal emphasizes literacy, the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and a final catchall category dubbed a “well-rounded education.”
But elements of that approach are facing stiff resistance from an array of organizations as well as from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. A chief concern is that the consolidation would lead to the neglect of issues Congress has long identified as national priorities, such as teaching U.S. history, boosting arts education, and distributing books to needy children.
Moreover, the plan—included in Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request—is contingent on the uncertain prospect of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year. Lawmakers are only now gearing up for that process, with the first House hearing held last week. (“Standards, Title I Link Scrutinized,” March 3, 2010.)
In one example of the controversy the president’s plans have sparked, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Don Young, R-Alaska, are circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter in the House in opposition to consolidating federal support for the Reading Is Fundamental program into a “Teaching and Learning: Literacy” fund. Federal aid represents the majority of money for the initiative, which provides free books and literacy resources to needy children and families.
“As the nation’s oldest and largest children’s literacy organization, RIF is a federally authorized program that has been funded by Congress and six administrations without interruption since 1975,” the two veteran lawmakers, who collectively have served more than 50 years in Congress, write. “Under [the president’s] new consolidated structure, funding is no longer assured for RIF, leaving over 4 million children who rely on this program without the literacy resources they rely upon.”
As part of his fiscal 2011 budget request, President Barack Obama is proposing to consolidate a variety of existing programs into three larger funds focused on literacy, STEM education, and a “well-rounded education.”
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, defends the budget plans, noting that many of the activities financed through the programs targeted for consolidation may well receive funding.
“The key takeaway is that it allows for greater flexibility,” she said. “We’re sure many of these programs that have tremendous track records will do very well in the competition.”
President Obama last month unveiled his budget request for fiscal 2011, which begins Oct. 1. In all, he would raise discretionary spending at the Education Department to about $50 billion, an increase of approximately 7.5 percent. That would include at least a $3 billion increase for K-12 programs. Nearly 40 existing programs at the federal agency would be consolidated into broader, more flexible funding streams. (“Education Budget Plan Wielded as Policy Lever,” Feb. 10, 2010.)
The Obama budget would create three “Effective Teaching and Learning” programs—for literacy, STEM education, and a “well-rounded education.”
“We are consolidating existing, fragmented investments in different content areas,” Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, said at a briefing last month.
A detailed overview of the budget issued by the department says the three new teaching and learning programs would strengthen instruction and raise student achievement “across the core content areas, especially in low-performing schools.”
The restructuring would boost the capacity of states, districts,and schools to improve instruction in a “comprehensive manner,” the overview says.
The effort is designed to “spur innovation,” the department adds, spread “evidence-based practices,” and hand states and districts more flexibility to develop strategies that best meet student needs.
The funds’ design would be fleshed out in greater detail as part of the ESEA reauthorization.
Unlike the other two, the STEM fund would not merge multiple programs, but would simply replace the $181 million Mathematics and Science Partnerships program, which supports state and local initiatives to improve student achievement in the subjects by promoting strong teaching skills. Its price tag, however, would grow to $300 million.
Separately, the president wants to consolidate two STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation into a “teacher education” fund. (“Many Authorized STEM Projects Fail to Get Funding,” Feb. 24, 2010.)
The literacy fund at the Education Department would consolidate six existing programs into a $450 million fund for fiscal 2011, and the Well-Rounded Education fund would consolidate nine programs into a $265 million spending pot. Among the programs targeted for consolidation for the latter fund are the Arts in Education program, Foreign Language Assistance, and Teaching American History.
The budget plan also aims to consolidate the $100 million Educational Technology State Grants program into the new teaching and learning funds, with each to include a focus on infusing technology, the department says.
Analysts note that all the existing programs have vocal advocates inside and outside Congress that may make the president’s plans tough to enact. Take the $119 million Teaching American History program, which supports teacher professional development in that subject.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate’s senior member, led the drive to create that program when he was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It’s also a favorite of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education panel’s Children and Families Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the ESEA.
“I am gravely concerned about the administration’s decision to eliminate the Teaching American History grant program and roll its contents into a much broader educational concept,” Sen. Byrd said in a statement. “In doing so, I believe our students’ understanding of our rich history will suffer.”
Joel Packer, a principal at the Raben Group, a Washington lobbying and public-affairs firm that works on education and other issues, said the administration’s proposal for the Well-Rounded Education fund may be particularly controversial because of the diverse programs it aims to merge.
“The Well-Rounded Education [fund] was kind of like, let’s take everything else,” he said. “You’re taking some fairly different programs and putting them all together.”
The fund would provide grants to support the development and expansion of “innovative practices and interdisciplinary programs to improve teaching and learning in the arts, foreign languages, civics and government, history, geography, economics and financial literacy, and other subjects,” according to the Education Department overview.
The literacy fund, meanwhile, would “support comprehensive state and local efforts aimed at improving literacy instruction, especially in high-need schools,” the department says. The agency overview notes that it would build on changes made in the fiscal 2010 appropriation for the Striving Readers program, which replaces an approach segmented by grade level with a “more comprehensive pre-K through grade 12 authorization.”
The ESEA reauthorization would add to those changes, the overview says, by strengthening “performance expectations,” and helping to identify and scale up innovative methods of teaching reading, writing, and language arts.
Richard M. Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association, said he was pleased to see language in the president’s request suggesting the new program would expand on Striving Readers.
“But doing that at the expense of free book distributions and the National Writing Project is not good policy,” he added. “You’ve got to have these other programs to build a fully literate population.”
Contending for Funds
One big change in the president’s budget overall is an increased emphasis on competitive grants at the Education Department, a practice the administration bolstered with the economic-stimulus law’s Race to the Top competition among states.
All three of the teaching and learning funds would award grants competitively, though analysts say the change may be less dramatic here than elsewhere in the budget, since many of the programs targeted for consolidation already dole out money that way.
The literacy and STEM education funds would award grants to states, or to states in collaboration with outside entities, the department says. The Well-Rounded Education grants would go directly to high-need districts or districts in partnership with states or other entities.
Stepping back, Mr. Packer from the Raben Group, who is a former lobbyist at the National Education Association, said creating the new teaching and learning funds in fiscal 2011 may prove difficult. He cited not only lawmakers’ reluctance to consolidate programs, but also time considerations, since those and other Obama budget plans are based on a significant restructuring of the ESEA, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act.
Appropriators in Congress would need to get some “clear indications” that the reauthorization will happen this year to base the budget on those consolidation plans, he said.
“I do not see it happening unless ESEA is reauthorized,” Mr. Packer said, “and even then it might not happen.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Obama Wants to Consolidate Curriculum Programs