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Things to Watch for in Obama's Education Budget

As you probably know by now, the president's budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts on Oct. 1, is to be released this week. Yes, it's late. The budget typically comes out in February. And this year, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have already completed their own budget blueprints, so the president's ideas pack less of a punch than they might normally.

Since the Obama administration hasn't been able to get much of what it wants from Brokedown Congress when it comes to the budget—or anything else, for that matter—it's possible this budget request could be dead on arrival. Still, there are some important things for folks in the education community to watch for, including:

1) How, exactly, is that prekindergarten program the president announced in his State of the Union Address going to be structured? We know the administration wants to pay for a big pre-K expansion through a new tax on tobacco products. And we know states would have to kick in a share of the costs, since the program would rely on matching funds. But we really don't know much else. How will the program work? How much would states have to states kick in? How much money would be provided for proposed expansions of home visiting services and early Head Start?

2) Any extra money for big formula programs to help make up for sequestration? The administration has tried to steer recent budget increases in education largely to competitive-grant programs, but when it comes to the impact of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been talking almost exclusively about how tough the loss of formula funds will be on districts. (That fact which hasn't been lost on Senate Republicans.) The administration's budget is sure to propose a halt to sequestration, through a mix of tax changes and cuts to entitlement programs, according to this story. But it's unclear if Congress will go along, meaning that the cuts could stay in place for another year (or more). Will the administration keep that in mind when it crafts its budget request, and will it ask for money for formula programs to help districts weather the cuts?

3) What exactly is this new high school program? President Barack Obama proposed a new program to help revamp high schools, which sounds like it could be financed through Race to the Top funds (or not). What part of the budget would it be in? What would it look like?

4) Any more detail on all those school safety and mental health programs? After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the administration put out a not-very-detailed list of new programs (that actually sound a lot like some old, already axed programs) aimed at improving school safety. Will there be more specifics in the budget?

5) What about Ed Tech? Some advocates for districts and state officials are also keeping their eye on a very technical—but important—piece of the budget: the federal "e-rate" program, which provides schools with discounts on the costs of improving telecommunications services and Internet access. Advocates hoping that some changes to the program might help school districts cover the cost of upgrading their technology to better handle on-line courses and the new, online assessments that dovetail with the Common Core State Standards. Will there be anything in the budget on this?

Another thing to watch for: In the past, the Obama administration has sought to consolidate K-12 programs in its budget request, create a new research agency using Investing in Innovation funds, and make a portion of Title II funds for teacher quality competitive. Do we see those greatest hits again? (And more importantly, do they go anywhere this time?)

Another perennial funding problem: the Pell Grant program, which offers aid to help low-income students go to college. It's been on shaky financial footing for quite a while, but has recovered somewhat from its recent shortfall. However, it still remains underfunded, at least over the long haul. (Must read explanation by the super smart folks at the New America Foundation here.) This is a problem for college access, but it's also a problem for the rest of the U.S. Department of Education, since it looked for a while like Pell Grants were going to be the monster that ate the education budget. Does the administration have a plan to fix it?

I know I missed a bunch of great questions. Please let me know what else to watch out for in the comments section.

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