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Obama Budget Would Prioritize Integration, Flat Fund Key Programs



President Barack Obama's final budget blueprint seeks new money to help schools become more socioeconomically integrated, and proposes increases for the administration's long-time priorities, including expanding preschool and helping school districts scale up promising practices.

But the spending plan, which is unlikely to be adopted wholesale by a GOP-controlled Congress, would essentially flat-fund programs that nearly all school districts depend on to educate students in special education and disadvantaged students. And it asks for a modest boost overall for the U.S. Department of Education—$69.4 billion in discretionary funding, or a 1.9 percent increase over current levels.

"The President's budget reflects the Administration's broader efforts to expand opportunity and ensure every child can achieve his or her full potential," said Acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. in a statement. "We have made tremendous progress with record high school graduation rates and more students of color going to college, but we have further to go to ensure that educational excellence is a reality for all students."

Integration Focus

The budget request includes a $120 million ask for "Stronger Together," a new competitive-grant program aimed at helping schools become more socioeconomically diverse.

The money would go to districts, or groups of districts, that have big achievement gaps and problems with socioeconomic integration. The grants could be used either to help these districts figure out a plan to address those problems, or to implement a strategy that's already been developed.

The focus on integration isn't a total surprise: King has made the issue a theme of recent speeches. Among other things, he said, it can help ensure that students across the economic spectrum have access to the same resources including great teachers, enrichment classes, and cutting-edge technology. (More here.)

The integration emphasis is carried over into other parts of the education budget ask. The president also wants $115 million for Magnet Schools, up from $96 million currently, in part for five-year competitive grants to support desegregation efforts. Plus, the budget seeks $17 million for the charter school program, which would bring it to $350 million. The administration sees charters and magnets as key vehicles for integrating schools.

And, the department wants $100 million for a new computer-science initiative that would help schools that serve disadvantaged kids. The budget also seeks $800 million, a $63 million increase, for English-language acquisition grants.

But for his part, Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services for the Council of the Great City Schools, was unhappy with the priority of the new program on socio-economic integration at the expense of racial integration.

"Racial re-segregation has further isolated minority students in many school districts," he said in an email. What's more "racial isolation still plagues the nation's elementary and secondary school system.  The new socio-economic integration proposal redirects attention and funding away from the continuing need for traditional integration of students."

While Simering doesn't except the proposal to come to fruition, given the tight budget climate, he would rather see the additional $120 million put towards magnet schools, or Title I grants for disadvantaged kids, which Obama basically slated for stagnant funding.  

Formulas Flat

Big programs that go out to nearly every school district—Title I grants for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education—were essentially level-funded.  

To be sure, the request for Title I grants to districts included a $450 million increase over current levels. But that's not new money because the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, eliminates the School Improvement Grant program, which received about $450 million in fiscal year 2017. The request just adds the former SIG money into the broader Title I program.

Special education state grants, meanwhile, would receive $11.9 billion, the same level as last year. (More on special education and the budget here.)

AASA, the School Administrators Association, commended Obama for making education funding a consistent priority throughout his presidency, said Noelle Ellerson, the organization's associate executive director of policy and advocacy. But AASA was dismayed to see level funding for special education.

And the organization is worried that the amount of Title I funding the president is asking for isn't going to be enough to offset new rules set forth in ESSA that allow states to hold back a part of their Title I money for innovation and school turnarounds, while not abiding by the usual constraint that districts be "held harmless" for this year only. AASA wants the administration to explain how it arrived at that Title I number, and show that districts won't lose out on funding. 

Amy  McIntosh, the department's acting assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy, told advocates Tuesday that the request for Title I balances the need for increases in Title I with the need for a robust resources for innovation and school turnaround.

ESSA Implementation

The spending plan is the first since the passage of ESSA. And the money would be available in federal fiscal year 2017, and for the most part, make its way to districts during the 2017-18 school year, the first year the new law goes into full effect.

The plan also includes increases for a handful of programs that were enshrined in ESSA, including:

  • $350 million for Preschool Development Grants, which moved from the Education Department to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under ESSA. That's an increase of $100 million over current levels. The budget also seeks $9.6 billion for Head Start, an increase of $434 million over current levels.
  • $180 million, or a $60 million hike, for "Education Innovation and Research"—the program in ESSA that succeeded Investing in Innovation, the Obama administration's grant program that sought to scale up promising practices at the district level.
  • $128 million or an increase of nearly $55 million for the Promise Neighborhoods, which helps communities pair wraparound services, such as health and arts education with academics.
  • A $25 million increase for state assessments, which would bring the program to $403 million. The proposal would cut state grants for assessments that go out by formula to $350 million from nearly $370 million. But it includes $18 million in new money to help states and districts audit their testing systems and eliminate assessments that are redundant, not particularly useful, or of low-quality. Plus it seeks $25 million to help states develop more-innovative assessments.

The department also wants $500 million for a brand-new program created under ESSA, the "Student Support and Academic Enrichment Program." The program, which is essentially a big block grant for districts, consolidated a bunch of smaller programs aimed at student health, safety, college-readiness, technology, and providing students with a well-rounded education.

The department's ask, which is only about one third of the $1.6 billion authorized for the block grant under ESSA, would seek to give states more control over how districts spend these funds, sources say. It would allow them to provide the money competitively, instead of by formula, as under the new law. Grants issued by states would have to be at least $50,000 each.

Under ESSA, districts that get at least $30,000 in funding from the new program have to adhere to some guidelines for spending the money—they have to direct at least 20 percent to an activity that gets at student health and safety, plus at least 20 percent to something that helps kids get a well-rounded education. And they can't spend more than 15 percent on technology infrastructure. Under the department's ask, there would be fewer grants, but all of them would be large enough to be subject to these rules.

For its part, AASA would like to have seen the block grant - which was authorized at $1.6 billion in ESSA - funded at a much higher level, to help preserve the district flexibility the organization believes Congress intended. 

 "By more adequately funding [the block grant] the administration can eliminate the perceived need for this prescriptive language and can instead provide a funding level that more closely aligns with congressional intent and the spirit of the legislation that President Obama himself signed into law," Ellerson wrote in an email. 

Douglas Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting organization also would have liked to have seen more money for the block grant. But, given limited resources, he called the proposal "smart" and said it would help increase the program's impact.

Doubling Down

The request includes some items that the administration has already telegraphed, including $4 billion in mandatory funding to improve computer science education.

And it recycles pieces of long-standing proposals that Congress hasn't acted on yet, including $80 million for "next generation" high schools that put a focus on technology, and a $1 billion "RESPECT" initiative to improve the teaching profession. It also re-ups a request for a $75 billion "Preschool for All Initiative."  

Early Reaction

Republicans were quick to throw cold water on the spending plan.

 "The American people aren't interested in continuing the same failed policies that have fostered an anemic economy, stagnant wages, and a lack of full-time jobs. Yet that's precisely what the president's budget would do," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee said in a statement.

But Democrats found a lot to like to in the proposal. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was happy to see the proposed increase for the Preschool Development Grant program, which she fought to include in ESSA.

So how much of the spending plan will Congress actually enact? The requests for new programmatic funding are probably going nowhere, given budget constraints, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition.

But he thinks lawmakers may be interested in adopting a few of the increases the administration has suggested, including the small boost for English-language acquisition grants, plus a $77 million for career and technical education grants, bringing that program to $1.2 billion.

Copies of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 federal budget are delivered to the House Budget Committee Room on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

--Andrew Harnik/AP

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