Special Report

President’s Education Aims Aired

By Michele McNeil & Alyson Klein — February 27, 2009 7 min read
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By explicitly naming education as one of three top priority areas in his first joint congressional address and in his first federal budget proposal, President Obama is putting considerable political weight—and even more money—behind the agenda he laid out during his campaign.

Certain themes he struck in the Feb. 24 address—accountability, reform initiatives, high school graduation, and workforce and college readiness—are echoed in the initial outlines of his fiscal 2010 budget plan, in the economic-stimulus package that includes $115 billion in education aid, and in recent statements by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But big questions remain. Among them: whether increases in short-term stimulus funding will continue in future years, and what kinds of changes might be demanded of high schools if the nation is to meet the ambitious goal of having the highest college-graduation rate in the world by 2020.

“Dropping out of high school is no longer an option,” President Obama told Congress in declaring that goal. “It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

President Obama’s budget proposal is handed out last week.

The president’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal, unveiled two days later, buttresses that theme, seeking to boost college-completion rates for low-income students, moving to reshape the college-loan world, and stressing a renewed interest in common, national academic standards.

Erasing Some Doubts

The proposal, to be fleshed out in coming months, would fund the U.S. Department of Education at $46.7 billion in the next fiscal year. That figure doesn’t take into account $81 billion for the Education Department under the economic-stimulus package approved this month or a major budgetary change for the Pell Grant program for college students.

The bold proposals on education, coming little more than a month into the new administration, were something of a surprise to those who followed Mr. Obama’s rhetoric on school policy during the 2008 campaign.

As a presidential candidate, he “dipped his toe carefully into controversial K-12 issues,” said Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager for Education Sector, a think tank in Washington. “What he’s said and done since then has resolved [that issue] in a way the education community should feel positive about.”

But while many are cheering President Obama’s focus on education—Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, called it “courageous and comprehensive”—others are questioning whether it goes far enough in advancing certain school reform approaches.

In the official GOP response to the president’s speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal touted vouchers as an idea that needs to be in the reform mix.

And Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, called the 2010 budget proposal “woefully silent on key programs that help disadvantaged students.”

Rep. McKeon pointed to the omission of Reading First, a controversial program from the Bush administration that Congress is in the process of eliminating and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that helps low-income families pay private-school tuition in the nation’s capital.

U.S. Department of Education Budgets

President Barack Obama is proposing an increase of just over 1 percent in the department’s discretionary budget next fiscal year.


• Figures exclude Pell Grant funding, which will total $15.6 billion in fiscal 2010 and would be made mandatory under this proposal.

• Budget figures exclude department funding under the economic-stimulus package, which will total $81.1 billion over fiscal 2009 and 2010.

SOURCE: Office of Management and Budget

Precollegiate Years

Specifics on how individual programs and initiatives would fare under the proposed budget won’t be available until the president releases his more detailed budget in April.

But the outline issued last week offers a blueprint for how the administration plans to proceed in what the budget documents call “Preparing Our Children for the 21st Century Economy.”

In what may help lay the groundwork for the coming debate over reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the administration is pledging to assist states in strengthening their academic standards and improving the quality of assessments, including assessments for students with disabilities and English-language learners.

The proposal also pledges additional investments for efforts to improve teacher and principal preparation and programs—both in traditional teacher education programs and in alternative-certification and residency programs. And it aims to reward effective teachers.

In the area of charter schools, the proposal indicates the administration intends to get started on its plan to double spending on charter schools, while closing those that aren’t performing well.

In a nod to educational innovation, the budget proposes financing a new Promise Neighborhood program, which would be modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Harlem program aims to boost college-going rates by combining K-12 education programs with a network of support services, including early-childhood education, after-school activities, and college counseling.

Early education features prominently in the proposal. It appears to preserve a boosted budget for Head Start, which got a $2.1 billion bump from the stimulus package and is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The administration also is working on a new early-education initiative aimed at helping states improve the quality and coordination of their prekindergarten programs, an idea that President Obama hit hard on the campaign trail last year.

Higher Education Loans

Perhaps the most dramatic education changes in the fiscal 2010 budget would come in the area of assistance for college students. The budget would shift the Pell Grant program of college-tuition aid—which received $16.2 billion in fiscal 2008—to the mandatory side of the funding ledger from the discretionary side.

The budget makes room for an annual increase in the maximum Pell Grant that would be pegged to the Consumer Price Index, plus 1 percent, to help keep up with the rising cost of tuition. The stimulus package bumped the maximum Pell Grant up to $5,550 during the 2010-11 school year.

Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington, said shifting the Pell Grant program to the mandatory side of the budget would enable low-income college students to plan better for their futures, because the program would no longer be subject to the uncertainties of the appropriations process.

The administration is taking a bold step in proposing to eliminate, by 2010, the Federal Family Education Loan program, which subsidizes private lenders to make government-backed student loans. After that date, all student loans would originate in the Direct Lending program, in which students borrow from the U.S. Treasury.

Traditionally, universities have been allowed to choose which program they would like to participate in. But the family-loan program came under fire in recent years because of questionable student-loan practices and alleged improper ties between colleges and student lenders. The program has also been shaken by the troubled credit markets.

The idea is sure to spark a heated—and possibly, very partisan—debate in Congress.

Just minutes after the Office of Management and Budget released the budget proposal, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, released a statement praising it and saying lawmakers would give it serious consideration. But key Republicans are likely to mount a vehement opposition to the proposal.

Meanwhile, as policymakers and school advocates await more specific budget numbers, the administration is still focusing on getting the stimulus money out to states and school districts quickly—and responsibly.

A ‘Much Higher Bar’

In a meeting with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the White House last week, Secretary Duncan told state schools chiefs that they can expect the first batch of stimulus money to become available within 30 to 45 days, and that formal guidance from his department—details on how it can be spent—is expected this week.

The message the secretary and vice president conveyed is that a lot is expected from chiefs, and their schools, in exchange for the money. “We’re going to have a much higher bar than other folks [receiving stimulus money],” Mr. Duncan told the chiefs. “We need to create jobs, and we need to get dramatically better.”

Mr. Biden pledged the White House’s continued support—so long as all the money translates into results.

“This is going to be an education administration,” he said. “But we want to begin to change the script, demand more of everyone. We expect a hell of a lot more.”

It remains unclear how the department will pursue the ambitious goal of demanding more. When asked, Mr. Duncan was short on specifics.

“Line by line, we’re going to do everything we can to ask states to demonstrate to us what is going to change for students so we can dramatically close the achievement gap, so we can increase our high school graduation rates and ultimately our college-graduation rates,” he said.

Still, the states’ schools chiefs got the message.

“This is a huge investment, a once-in-a-lifetime investment. We realize how serious our commitment is to reform,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Added Kenneth James, the Arkansas education commissioner: “We cannot fail in this endeavor. We have to get this right.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as President’s Education Aims Aired


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