The Intersection: Feb 2011

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The Budget’s Path for Education

Last week President Obama, joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Budget Director Jack Lew, visited a Baltimore-area school to unveil his budget proposal.  As with any presidential event, the location that he chose was significant: in a climate demanding spending cuts, education is one area where President Obama has significantly increased funding. His budget proposal raises discretionary Department of Education funding to $77.4 billion, a nearly 21% increase from $64.1 billion in 2010.

This comes as no surprise to those who tuned in to January’s State of the Union address, in which President Obama put education front-and-center on the national agenda and tied his education proposals directly to the nation’s economic future: “If we want to win the future…we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”  His sentiments at last week’s budget unveiling were largely the same, and he’s putting his budget where his mouth is – a move that will no doubt meet strong headwinds from Republicans, whose recent House spending bill cut more than $5 billion from the Department of Education’s 2010 budget.

House Education and Workforce committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) didn’t mince his words on the issue: “Over the last 45 years we have increased our investment in education, but the return on that investment has failed to improve student achievement.  Throwing more money at our nation’s broken education system ignores reality and does a disservice to students and taxpayers.”  Tea Party member Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has called for the total elimination of the Department of Education, which he argues goes beyond the constitutional role of the federal government.

So what’s included in the President’s $77.4 billion dollar budget for the Department of Education? Much of the growth goes to keeping the maximum Pell Grant amount at $5,500, while the House Republicans’ proposal would cut this amount by $845.  The program has grown significantly over the past two years as tough economic times have meant that far more students qualify for the grants.  While the President’s proposal eliminates the in-school interest subsidy for graduate students and the “year-round” program, which provides two grants in a single award year, it would raise overall Pell funding by more than $5 billion.

In total, President Obama’s proposal eliminates 13 programs and consolidates the remaining 38 into 11 new programs.  The proposal includes a $300 million increase for Title I, which funnels money to districts to educate disadvantaged students, and a $200 million boost for special education.  Under the Republican proposal, Title I would be cut by $693.5 million.  Special education, typically a Republican priority, faced a $557 million decrease in the first iteration of the proposal, but an amendment restored funding to current levels.

The president’s budget proposes $1.4 billion for grant competitions, including $900 million for a revised Race to the Top, which would be for individual districts instead of states and would include a new emphasis on productivity.  The proposal also includes $300 million to continue the Investing in Innovation (i3) program and introduces new grant competitions focused on early learning and college access and completion.

Race to the Top has received criticism from Republicans and program applicants for being too prescriptive to state and school boards, and the Republican House spending bill includes no funding for such programs.  We’ve seen before that congressional appropriators, including former House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI), prefer to put money into formula grants, like Title I and special education, rather than setting funds aside for competitive grants.  The National School Boards Association also supports a stronger emphasis on formula grant programs, and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten states that “funding determined by competition sometimes allows those districts who can most afford it to have an edge.”

Given that the budget proposal for education will face a significant challenge, particularly in the House, it is important to remember the budget is also a policy document that provides insights into the Administration’s priorities, and that some of the proposed changes will likely find their way into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.

While the two parties don’t see eye to eye on every aspect of that important legislation, there is a consensus that the law needs to be reauthorized sooner rather than later and potential for bipartisan work on the law exists.  Just last Thursday, President Obama and Secretary Duncan met with top lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to discuss a path forward and to set a goal of revamping the legislation before the new school year.

Senate committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the top Republican, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, concur on the need to change the law’s system for labeling schools, as well as the law’s signature yardstick, Adequate Yearly Progress.  On the House side, recent conversations with committee chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the committee’s top Democrat, show that the two seem to agree that the administration’s four school improvement models need to be overhauled and that the current law’s teacher provisions need to be reworked to include more of an emphasis on effectiveness.

Unlike many issues being discussed on the Hill, the American people may have their back on this one.  A recent Gallup poll finds that a majority of Americans say the No Child Left Behind law should see major revisions or be scrapped entirely.  Overall, 41% say Congress should keep the act but with major revisions. 16% want it eliminated altogether.  When it comes to a party breakdown, Republicans, Democrats, and independents share similar views on what action Congress should take: 45% of Democrats called for major revisions, compared to 41% of Independents, and 37% of Republicans.

While the fate of the President’s budget proposal is yet to be seen, it is clear there will need to be some concessions made on education funding, and we can all look forward to the lively debate around No Child Left Behind as the reauthorization process gets rolling.

Cameron Munson

Vice President

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