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Obama Budget to Seek New Money to Help Schools Integrate, Sources Say


Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has been talking a lot about ensuring that schools are diverse, as a means to ensure equity and boost student achievement.

And now it seems he's hoping to put some new money where his rhetoric is. The Obama administration's final budget, slated to be released Tuesday, is expected to ask for $120 million for a new competitive-grant program—called "Stronger Together"—that would help districts—or groups of districts—tackle the sticky issue of making schools more socio-economically integrated, sources say. Grantees could either use the money for planning grants, or they could move right into implementing ideas.

So will this new grant program actually come to fruition? It's tough to say. The administration and Congress agreed on pretty strict spending caps that don't leave a lot of room for new programs. And, politically, it seems unlikely that the Republican lawmakers who control the committees overseeing education spending would want to help President Barack Obama and King bolster their legacy on the way out the door.

Still, the next presidential administration could take the idea and run with it. And the proposal may make some advocates happy—many think the Obama administration hasn't done enough on the issue of integration. More in this great This American Life episode.

In some other advance tidbits from the administration's fiscal year 2017 budget request, sources say the president will seek:

  • A $450 million increase for the Title I grants for disadvantaged students.  The boost for Title I, however, includes the money that used to be part of the School Improvement Grant program, which was eliminated under ESSA. So it's not really a net increase for the program. And special education state grants would be flat-funded, but there's some extra money for early childhood special education.
  • A $77 million increase for Career and Technical education, plus $25 million more for state assessments, which would bring the program to $405 million. Federal programs for rural schools, which got a bump in the most recent budget, would be flat-funded.
  • Preschool development grants, which have moved to the Department of Health and Human Services, would see a $100 million increase to $350 million.
  • $100 million for new "Computer Science for All" development grants that would help disadvantaged communities bolster computer science education.
  • "Education Innovation and Research"—the successor program to Investing in Innovation, would get $180 million, an increase of $60 million over i3's current funding of $120 million.
  • Overall, the Education Department would get $69.4 billion, an increase of about $1.3 billion, or just under 2 percent. 

The president's budget is also expected to seek $500 million for the new block grant program in the just-passed Every Student Succeeds Act, into which a number of other programs were consolidated. 

The administration wants to put a twist on that program, though. Instead of having the money go out by formula to states and then districts, as it does under ESSA, it would first go by formula to states, who would then send it out competitively. And the grants would be at least $50,000. Under ESSA, districts that receive less than $30,000 from the block grant don't have to abide by the rules in the law for using it.

But, if the grants are as big as $50,000 districts who get them would have to spend at least 20 percent on one activity that helps improve student health and safety, and another 20 percent on at least one activity that helps students become more well-rounded. And they couldn't spend more than 15 percent of the funding on technology infrastructure.

Why the twist? Under ESSA, the block grant was slated to be much larger, $1.6 billion. But it would be difficult for the administration and Congress to provide all that money and stay within the strict spending caps. If the $500 million goes out by formula to districts, the grants won't be very big, the thinking goes. Making it competitive within states would alleviate that problem.

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