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Obama Adviser Details STEM Ed. Plans, Draws GOP Skepticism

President Obama's top science adviser testified the other day on the administration's budgetary plans for STEM education, but encountered some skepticism from the Republican chairman of a key House committee, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas.

Overall, the president's budget request would provide $3 billion for STEM education across the federal government, an increase of 2.6 percent over the current level, said John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during the Feb. 17 House hearing.

"The 2013 budget makes disciplined choices guided by drafts of the federal STEM education strategic plan, cutting back on lower-priority programs to make room for targeted increases and reducing duplication and overlap," he said in prepared testimony.

In fact, Holdren said the president's plan for fiscal 2013 would reduce the number of programs for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education from 235 to 209.

For his part, Hall, the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, expressed concern about the price tag for the president's overall budgetary plans for science and technology plans, noting that current levels of funding across the government are "not sustainable."

"I continue to believe that while it is true that prudent investments in science and technology, including STEM education, will almost certainly yield future economic gains and help create new jobs of the future, it is also true that these gains can be hindered by poor decisionmaking," he said in prepared remarks. "Hard-working Americans expect and deserve better."

He added: "Blanket increases even for our federal science agencies are not the same as prudent investment and do not guarantee innovation. ... As stewards of the taxpayers' dollars, we must curtail runaway spending and prioritize programs that lay the foundation for entrepreneurial success."

Holdren also mentioned in his testimony that the White House this spring will finalize a new strategic plan to "increase coordination and collaboration among the 13 agencies that support STEM education and increase the efficiency and impact of the federal portfolio of STEM education programs."

Unfortunately, Holdren's prepared testimony did not identify which 26 programs would be eliminated or consolidated. But it's worth keeping in mind that the federal role in STEM education spans 13 federal agencies (yes, 13!). Beyond the obvious ones like the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, others include the departments of Agriculture, Health & Human Services, Energy, Transportation, Commerce, and even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Holdren singled out a few initiatives for special attention in his testimony, including a proposal to set aside $80 million from the Effective Teachers and Leaders State Grants program for STEM teacher preparation, and $55 million for the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. In addition, he noted a new proposal for a $60 million math education program to be jointly administered by NSF and the Education Department. This initiative, he said, would target "early research, development, validation, and scale-up of effective practices."

I recently provided a closer look at Obama's budget plans for the Education Department.

For NSF, the largest provider of federal aid for STEM education, his budget envisions an overall agency increase of 6.7 percent, for a total of $7.4 billion. Of that amount, $1.2 billion would be devoted to STEM education programs, according to budget documents. Another $263 million would support K-12 programs, an increase of 7.4 percent. Indeed, while K-12 still is short of spending levels for both undergraduate programs and "graduate and professional programs," its growth rate was the highest across all levels of education. Even so, that level is slightly below the $268 million for K-12 in fiscal 2011.

Meanwhile, the budget request would cut by 20 percent NSF spending on "outreach and informal education programs." (Word has it that this proposal is a big disappointment to advocates for informal science education, including science museums). For more on the NSF's role in informal science learning, check out this EdWeek story from last year.

Holdren said the Obama administration is committed to "look carefully at the effectiveness of all STEM programs and find ways to improve them."

No doubt Hall supports that idea, though the two may not agree exactly on what should stay and what should go, and how much the federal government should be spending on STEM education.

"Dr. Holdren, we remain open to working with you as we move forward," Hall said, "but we respectfully ask that you take the message back to the president that to say that we continue to have significant concerns with his priorities for our nation's precious and limited research and development dollars is a vast understatement."

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