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Every Student Succeeds Act

Obama’s Budget and Education: Three Things to Watch

By Alyson Klein — February 08, 2016 2 min read
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President Barack Obama’s final budget is due out Tuesday. And it’s the first budget since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

This budget is for federal fiscal year 2017, which generally impacts the 2017-18 school year, or the first year of full ESSA implementation. Even though the Obama administration will be gone by then, the budget could serve as a jumping off point for future education secretaries to implement the law. And the next president—especially if that person is a Democrat—may take his or her cues from Obama’s other budget proposals, too.

So what should you be paying attention to? Here’s a quick rundown:

1. What happens with ESSA’s big block grant?

ESSA eliminated or consolidated some 50 programs, combining many into a giant, flexible block grant that the new law authorizes (Congress-speak for “recommends”) at about $1.6 billion a year. The trouble is that the programs that currently make up that block grant only get a little more than $350 million right now, Joel Packer, the executive director the Committee for Education Funding said. And lawmakers who control spending don’t always follow authorizations for the programs they are funding.

The block grant covers a lot of ground. Districts are supposed to use part of the money to help kids stay safe and healthy and provide them with a well-rounded education, through things like arts or physical education programs. They can also use the money for technology and to help students get ready for college.

So how will the president’s budget handle the block grant? And how much money will come through? Packer is hopeful, but he points out that it’s going to be a tight budget year, without much room for new increases, thanks to spending caps.

Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said there was a lot of bipartisan support for ESSA, and now it will be on lawmakers to figure out how to handle the block grant, which would be the third-largest program in the ESEA if the full $1.6 billion comes through.

“It’s really on the shoulders of Congress to support what was a pretty clear priority,” she said.

2. ESSA recommends less money for some education programs than they are getting now. How does the administration handle that?

The main federal K-12 program for disadvantaged students, Title I, is recommended for less money under ESSA than it is getting now. Same goes for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, magnet schools, Impact Aid, and a handful of other programs. (More, including numbers, in this smart analysis by CEF.) So which numbers do Obama—and Congress—stick with?

3. Do any of the presidential candidates start talking about computer science, youth employment, or any of the other new ideas in the budget?

We know two of the president’s marquee edu-budget asks already—$4 billion to bolster computer science education, and another $5.5 billion to help bolster employment and training opportunities for young people, including high school students. It’s unlikely that much money will materialize, but it’s a tailor-made campaign proposal (and maybe future budget ask?) for any presidential contender to pick up and run with.

Speaking of the presidential campaign, Obama may or may not get to sign this budget. Particularly if the new president is a Republican, Congress could decide to pass legislation extending funding for most programs for a while, and let the new administration put the finishing touches on the spending plan.