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Obama Budget Reflects ESEA Policy Priorities

Republicans are not in a spendy mood, so many of the increases in the Obama administration's fiscal year 2012 budget proposal may well be Dead On Arrival on Capitol Hill.

But the budget is more than just a spending plan, it's a policy document. And some of these proposals (especially the ones that don't cost a dime) may yet make it into law, namely, into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act.

The most interesting proposed changes are in Race to the Top, part of the economic stimulus that would be extended under the proposal. If the administration actually gets the $900 million it's asking for this program, I'll eat 900 million M&Ms. Seriously, I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't get anything at all.

But still, I think it's really interesting that the administration has decided to base the program (and any future Investing in Innovation grants) in part on whether school districts implement cost-cutting measures. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about ideas like boosting class size (in a "smart" way) and changing teacher tenure at the American Enterprise Institute a while back. That speech probably gives us a good clue of what would be on the menu.

(If this cost-cutting thing doesn't get GOP support for a Race to the Top extension, probably nothing will. Although I could also see the Republicans scratching their heads over the whole-spending-money-as-a-reward-for-cutting-money thing.) Cost cutting would also be rewarded in a new version of the Investing in Innovation Grant program; the administration wants $300 million for that.

Some proposals first unveiled in last year's budget, and then in the administration's ESEA draft are also back, such as:

Replacing Adequate Yearly Progress with a new measure aimed at improving College-and-Career Readiness

• Giving an actual, financial incentive—and added flexibility with other funds—to districts that make progress closing the achievement gap and significantly increase student achievement overall. This is the $300 million Title I rewards proposal, on page 17 of the budget document. Apparently this could be used for actual bonuses for staff AND students, according to to the budget documents. (I'm not sure how the student part would work. Maybe, something like, "Hey kids! Great job on the reading tests! Pizza party on Mr. Duncan!")

• Asking states to develop a definition of "effective teacher" and "highly effective teacher" in order to tap Title II money (that's Improving Teacher Quality State grants).

Speaking of teachers, the budget would scrap the TEACH grants, which offer grants of $4,000 to students who want to teach in high-needs schools, and replace them with a new Presidential Teaching Fellows program aimed at using incentive grants to a) encourage states to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for their students' results in the classroom; b) prod states to shut down ineffective teacher prep programs; c) get more teachers into high-need schools and subjects.

It's sort of a catch-more-flies-with-honey approach to accountability for teacher prep programs, a perennial priority for folks who identify with the Democrats for Education Reform-type wing of the Democratic party.

The teaching fellows program may be proposed in the budget, but it's actually the brainchild of the administration's Senate soulmate on K-12 issues, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Bennet, is a member of the Senate Dems' (ever-expanding) Team ESEA. He has been working on a big teacher quality bill that would include this program. Bennet sent a letter to Obama last week asking that the program be included in the budget. More on the letter at Teacher Beat.

The grants would award scholarships of up to $10,000 to individuals who attend high-performing teacher-prep programs. To be considered high-performing (and get the money for their students) teacher-prep programs would have to demonstrate that they're getting the job done, in part through the academic growth of the students their graduates teach. States could set aside part of the money to create a "portable certification" which would make it easier for teachers to change jobs. For more, check out page 54 of the budget request.

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