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Obama Budget Pitches Race to Top for Equity, New Money for Ed Tech

President-Barack-Obama-school-2015-budget-blog.jpgUPDATED

Education would be a bright spot in a relatively austere budget year, if the Obama administration gets its way.

The president's $3.9 trillion fiscal year 2015 budget, released Tuesday—which would largely hit school districts in the 2015-16 school year—includes level funding for key formula programs, such as Title I grants to districts, but makes room for several new competitive initiatives, including a new iteration of the Race to the Top program focused on helping schools close the achievement gap.

Overall, the White House is asking for $68.6 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, or about a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2014.

The new $300 million Race to the Top contest would offer grants to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework. It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students with non-cognitive skills. Although teacher equity would be a component of the fund, the proposal is separate from the administration's "50-state strategy" to ensure that states give students in poverty access to as many highly effective teachers as their more advantaged peers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted on a call with reporters that there isn't a single school district that is "systemically identifying" its "hardest-working" teachers and "moving that talent to underserved communities."

"I want people to have not just the right rhetoric," he said. "I want to make sure people are walking the walk."

But Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, wasn't so sure it made sense to create a competitive grant aimed at bolstering equity.

"We question the sincerity behind  the call for equity when, by construction, the program creates a system of winning and losers," she said. 

The White House is also seeking $200 million for a new initiative aimed at bolstering teacher professional development when it comes to using technology, including using student data systems to improve instruction. Under the program, state education agencies could receive foundational formula funds to expand educational technology. It's notable that the main federal K-12 technology program—Enhancing Education Through Technology state grants—vanished under the Obama administration's watch, to the chagrin of technology advocates.

On the higher education front, the White House is also asking for $7 billion over 10 years for a fund to provide bonuses to colleges that bolster graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. The administration is also seeking $4 billion over 10 years for a fund to encourage states to use "performance-based budgeting"—which would reward colleges based, in part, on results. 

The administration is also seeking $150 million for a program to redesign high schools, helping them partner with employers and institutions of higher education to give students access to work experiences. That's similar to a pitch in last year's budget request, which wasn't embraced by Congress. The administration instead diverted $100 million in one-time U.S. Department of Labor funds to the program.

The two largest formula programs that go out to every district would be frozen at last year's level, which is roughly $14.4 billion for Title I grants to districts for disadvantaged students, and roughly $11.5 billion for state grants for special education. The budget also includes $100 million for a competitive-grant program to help schools improve special education outcomes. 

And Improving Teacher Quality State grants—another formula program—would actually be cut, to $2 billion from roughly $2.4 billion this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Teacher Incentive Fund, which offers grants to districts to create pay for performance, would get a boost, from roughly $288 million to $320 million, in part to make room for a school leadership component.

Meanwhile, two key Obama administration priorities—charter schools, financed at more than $240 million and the School Improvement Grant program, financed at about $505 million—would be funded at last year's levels. The SIG program recently underwent a congressional makeover that would give states much more say over how they turn around the lowest-performing schools.

But other signature competitive grants are slated for increases, including the Investing in Innovation program, which helps school districts scale-up promising practices. The budget seeks $165 million for the fund, an increase of $23.4 million. The request would include nearly $50 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, or ARPA-ED, a research initiative. And the budget seeks an increase for the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps communities pair education with other services, such as arts education. 

The budget plan also makes a second sales pitch for some proposals that Congress hasn't funded yet. The administration is again seeking $75 billion over 10 years for an initiative to entice states to expand prekindergarten programs to more 4-year-olds.

And it asks for $500 million for preschool development grants, which are aimed at helping states improve their early-childhood education programs. Congress already put a $250 million down payment on that request in its fiscal year 2014 spending bills. The Education Department still hasn't explained exactly how it wants to use the money.

A version of the prekindergarten program has been introduced as legislation by the two top Democrats in Congress on education issues, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. So far, lawmakers haven't been able to enact the plan, in part because of its high price tag. The White House suggested covering part of the cost through a tax hike on tobacco products—which has never gained traction on Capitol Hill.

The Head Start progam, which got a $1 billion increase last year, would see a small boost, from about $8.58 billion to about $8.86 billion. That program is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Interestingly, some of the policy language typically included in the budget proposal has shifted a bit. For instance, last year, the administration's request sought to tie Title I funds in part to a state's adoption of college- and career-ready standards, common to a number of states. But this year, that language has been revised—the administration dropped the requirement for "common" standards. (Hat tip to the New America Foundation's eagle-eyed Anne Hyslop for pointing this out.)

"Given what's happened with all the backlash to common core, it was a very smart decision on their part," said Hyslop in an email.

And the proposal also seeks to eliminate some programs that have champions on Capitol Hill, including the $158 million "Striving Readers" program, a favorite of Harkin, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 policy and spending. The nearly $50 million high school graduation initiative, and the nearly $50 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program are also on the chopping block. 

The National Education Association, a 3 million-member union, is happy with the budget overall, given that education was slated for small increases in a tight year. Mary Kusler, the union's director of government relations, said she thinks the administration's plan to invest in early-childhood education and higher education delivers "a great one-two punch at both ends of the educational arc of a students' life."

But the union wishes the administration had been able to pump more resources into formula programs that every district relies on, such as Title I, special education, and teacher quality state grants.

"We were disappointed to see the cut in [overall aid for teacher quality]," said Kusler. Those dollars are important "for delivering professional development and class-size reduction that we know our students need in order to succeed."

And when it comes to equity, Kusler thinks increasing investments in Title I or special education would "provide stable sources of funding for students who are most in need."

It's unclear how the overall budget proposal will go over on Capitol Hill. There isn't a lot of room this year for new spending, thanks to a budget agreement hammered out late last year by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis. Their plan temporarily rolled back the bulk of automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. But it also largely froze domestic discretionary spending—the category that includes education, at last year's levels.

The administration also asked for nearly $60 billion in additional "wish list" spending, for programs including early childhood education, alongside its traditional budget request. But that proposal seems unlikely to gain much GOP support in Congress. 

Photo: President Barack Obama sits with Marcus Wesby and other preschools student during his visit on Tuesday to Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington. Obama visited the school to talk about his 2015 budget proposal, which was released Tuesday. Powell Elementary has seen rapid growth in recent years and serves a predominantly Hispanic student body. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, who greeted Obama at the school, recently directed $20 million to Powell for a planned modernization and addition.—Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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