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Obama Budget Seeks Boosts for Early Ed., High Schools, Technology

Obama-Budget-speech-blog.jpgUPDATED

By Alyson Klein and Lauren Camera

President Barack Obama may not have many allies left in the newly GOP-dominated Congress—but he's still planning to ask lawmakers for a sizable increase for the U.S. Department of Education in his fiscal year 2016 budget request.

The request, being formally unveiled Monday, includes big hikes for teacher quality, preschool development grants, civil rights enforcement, education technology, plus a new competitive-grant program aimed at helping districts make better use of their federal and local K-12 dollars.

The administration also is seeking big spending bumps for programs that have proven unpopular with Republicans in Congress, such as the School Improvement Grant program.

Overall, the president wants a total of $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over 2015 levels. 

"American students are making very real progress," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a press call Monday afternoon, pointing to rising graduation rates and plummeting drop-out rates in states around the country. "From 2008 to 2012, we saw more than 1.1 million additional students of color go to college. But we know we're nowhere near where we need to be. We can't slow down."

The increase for education—and other domestic programs—is the administration's first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that's likely to dominate budget talks all year long: whether and how to end the across-the-board-cuts known as "sequestration." Congress was able to come up with a temporary deal to alleviate the cuts for both military programs and domestic ones, like education. But that deal expires this fall, and then the cuts kick back in full force.

Education advocates are happy to see the focus on rolling back the cuts.

"From our perspective we applaud the president for restarting a critical conversation around sequestration," said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association. "We know the train is coming there has been little to no mention or dialogue of it on Capitol Hill right now. You wonder if it's an element of fatigue. And [when] fatigue wears off you start hearing about kids losing their Head Start spots."

Formula Funding vs Competitive Funding

The administration has long been fond of big, competitive-grant initiatives. Indeed, for the last two years, Obama's budget request proposed level-funding some popular programs that go out to every district by formula in order to push more resources to its signature competitions.

But this year's request includes big increases for those formula-funded programs. They include Title I grants for disadvantaged students, which would see a $1 billion hike to $15.4 billion, and English Language Acquisition Grants, which haven't seen an increase  in years, but would go from nearly $740 million in the current year to nearly $775 million in the president's new budget. Spending on state grants for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would also see a modest increase of $175 million, bringing the program to $11.7 billion.

During the press call, Duncan said that the president's proposed increased investments in core K-12 programs, like Title I and IDEA, are an acknowledgement of Congress working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"The last time ESEA was reauthorized, there was an emphasis on devoting more resources, but it came up short," Duncan said. "We can't let that happen again."

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' popular Head Start program, which operates early-childhood education programs for low-income children, would see a $1 billion bump, in part to help programs extend the school day and year. The budget request would also include the president's previous $75 billion, 10-year proposal to significantly expand preschool offerings at the state level. 

"This new budget suggests to me that at least when it comes to Title I, the administration is making more of an effort to engage with Congress and the unions and other advocacy groups that would like to be stronger allies," said Erik Fatemi, vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a bipartisan lobbying group in Washington, who until recently worked as an aide to Democrats on the Senate panel that oversees K-12 spending.

"Until this year, the president's education budgets have been long on proposed new initiatives, some of which have almost no chances of being enacted, and short on increases for the core formula programs that are so important to the constituencies and champions who are most likely to fight for more education funding," Fatemi continued. "Politically it didn't gain the administration any friends in Congress or the education advocacy community."

The budget would also seek to continue a host of programs that the Obama administration has put on the chopping block in past years, including the nearly $50 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, the nearly $30 million Advanced Placement program, and the $25 million Arts in Education. Lawmakers have saved those programs year after year, so it looks like the administration is just deciding to include them in its ask from the jump.

NCLB Reauthorization Implications

The budget request would marginally nudge funding for state assessments from $369 million in current funding to $378 million. Notably, separate funding set-aside for state-level assessment activities would nearly triple in size, from $9 million to $25 million. States can use that to, among other things, evaluate the quality, alignment and uses of tests they administer.

The proposed uptick in set-aside funding comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are in the process of trying to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And the biggest policy debate spiraling out of those efforts has been whether or not to maintain the law's annual testing requirement.

The NEA has been leading the charge in support of grade-span testing, or limiting the number of mandated tests. Obama's proposal, however, is more in line with a legislation from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., that would allow states to use federal funding to audit their assessment systems and eliminate poor-quality and redundant tests.

The budget language is "an important transparency mechanism and will certainly give more data of the types of assessments, but it doesn't necessarily go as far as reducing assessments," Kusler added. "Still, it's an important signal."

Other major initiatives:

  • The president wants a $500 million increase for the Preschool Development Grant program, bringing it $750 million. Thirty-five states applied for the grants this year, and 18 received the funding.
  • The administration wants to create a brand-new, pilot program within Title I for no more than a dozen districts. These districts would have to show that they are doing a great job of distributing resources fairly between low- and high-poverty schools. In exchange, they'd get more flexibility with their Title I money. This essentially seems like a way for the department to get at some of the goals of its Race to the Top for Educational Equity program, which was proposed in last year's budget request, but which Congress rejected. 
  • On a somewhat similar note, the administration is asking for a $100 million new competitive-grant program aimed at helping districts make the best use of federal, state, and local K-12 dollars to improve outcomes for low-income students.
  • For the first time ever, the department is not asking for any new money for the administration's signature Race to Top program, which rewards states and districts for adopting Obama's K-12 priorities. Instead, the budget seeks increases for other Obama administration initiatives that have been less politically toxic, including $300 million for Investing in Innovation, a $180 million increase. The increase for i3 includes $50 million for a new education-based research agency modeled after the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
  • There's also a proposed $50 million increase to the School Improvement Grant program, which would bring it to $556 million. SIG, which has few fans in Congress, has posted mixed results when it comes to student achievement.
  • Federal grants for charter schools would see a more than $120 million bump, to $375 million, in part to help replicate successful models, a priority that both the administration and the Republican Congress share. And the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps communities pair K-12 programs with health and other supports, would see a more-than $93 million increase, to $150 million. 
  • The administration, which has been issuing civil rights guidance on everything from single-gender programs to resource equity, also wants a sizeable hike, more than $30 million, or about 34 percent,  for the office for civil rights to hire hundreds of new employees to investigate civil rights complaints. The office is currently funded at about $100 million. 
  • Regarding teachers, the administration is seeking to expand and revamp the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create alternative-pay programs. The request asks for $350 million for a new version of TIF that could be used for broader systems to reward, train, and help develop strong teachers and principals. 
  • Also on teachers, the administration is asking for a $5 billion, five-year teacher quality initiative paid for through mandatory funds that sounds somewhat similar to the RESPECT initiate it's pitched in previous years. The name would be different, however, instead of RESPECT, it's "Teaching for Tomorrow." The funds would be used to recruit and train excellent educators.
  • The administration wants $200 million for a new version of the Educational Technology State Grants program, aimed at professional development. The program hasn't been financed in years, to the chagrin of some folks in the ed-tech community. 
  • The administration also is seeking $200 million in new funding for a career and technical education initiative to help advance job training, including work-based learning and flexible schedules. The program would be run jointly through the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Labor.  
  • More details on the high school initiative: The administration is proposing a new $125 million competitive-grant program to promote high school redesign, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. In particular, the department wants to expand opportunities for girls and other groups underrepresented in STEM fields. That's something the president previewed in documents released at the time of his State of the Union address. This sounds somewhat similar to a program the administration proposed in a past budget that was never financed by Congress, but which the administration was able to fund, temporarily, through the Labor Department

  • As previously announced, the budget includes tax changes aimed at helping families cover the cost of child care and higher education. It would expand the child care tax credit to $3,000 per child, up from $1,000 currently. And it would create a partnership with states to make the first two years of community college free. The community college plan is estimated to cost $60 billion over the next decade. "We think this could be an absolute game-changer for the economy," Duncan said of the president's community college proposal. "Grades 13 and 14 are critical."

  • Also previously announced, the budget proposes $1 billion for Native American education, a major new initiative jointly funded through the Education Department and the Department of the Interior that would boost funding for a host of programs that support Native youth and education in Indian Country. Among other things, the proposal includes $125 million for school maintenance and construction. More specifics here from our colleague Corey Mitchell.

What's the congressional reaction?

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, said the budget asks for more spending and more government. "Far too many students are trapped in failing schools, and workers are struggling to pay the bills and provide for their families. While the president has missed another opportunity to unite us as a country and begin tackling these tough challenges," he said in a statement.

Predictably, his counterpart on the education committee, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said in a statement responding to the president's budget that it would "would reverse the arbitrary, destructive spending cuts of the last four years and make critical investments in our nation's future."

"We know that nothing lifts incomes and ensures continued economic prosperity better than education," he said in the statement. "President Obama has called for funding to close resource and opportunity gaps at every level of our education system—from early childhood, to K-12, and through to college—and to keep a high-quality education within reach of every American child."

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers remarks Monday at the Department of Homeland Security detailing his budget proposal. The President warned congressional Republicans Monday that he won't accept a spending plan that boosts national security at the expense of domestic programs for the middle class.  —Evan Vucci/AP​

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