Education gets budget love

President Obama wants to increase discretionary spending for the Department of Education in 2015 by about 2 percent, from $67.3 billion to $68.6 billion, the largest increase of any agency besides the Department of Defense.

That’s in addition to $14.4 billion the federal government gives in formula grants to states to help educate poor children and another $11.5 billion it provides for special education. In both of those categories, funding would remain flat.

It is unclear how the president’s proposals for education will fare on Capitol Hill. Some Republican leaders in Congress were either lukewarm or outright hostile to the spending plan on Tuesday.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement that the president’s new ideas were “costly and confusing.”

The budget proposal “includes hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to fund new federal programs,” Kline wrote. “In critical areas such as early learning, job training, and higher education the president wants to make an existing maze of programs even more costly and confusing. Spending more money on broken programs will not provide the support our most vulnerable children, workers, and families desperately need.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate education panel, said low-income students would be better served if instead of funding public schools, the government sent that money to their families to spend at public or private schools.

But Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, applauded the spending plan, saying that “reflects a president who understands that resolving the institutionalized inequities of our education system is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one as well.”

In his 2015 budget, Obama is again seeking funding for his “Preschool for All” plan to expand early childhood education to most low- and middle-income four year olds across the country — a 10-year, $76 billion program that would be funded by a near doubling of the federal tobacco tax. This idea was first proposed in last year’s education budget, and the president promoted it in his State of the Union address this year.

While there is bipartisan support for increasing access to high quality preschool, especially among governors, there has been little appetite on Capitol Hill to fund the plan, especially when it relies on a tax increase.

Obama is proposing a new version of the competitive grants that have become a signature of his education policy, this time creating a $300 million Race to the Top contest for states focused on closing the achievement gap between poor and privileged children.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Tuesday that the administration wants to use the competition to encourage school districts to take bold steps toward improving education for poor students.

For instance, of the nation’s 15,000 school districts, none has systematically identified its hardest working, most committed teachers and placed them in the most challenging classrooms, Duncan said. “We want to make sure people are walking the walk, not just rhetoric,” he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the teachers union is skeptical that a competitive grant program, where some states win federal dollars and others lose, is the best way to help all children.

Duncan countered that in a tight economy, his agency is trying to use dollars strategically to get broad results. “With limited dollars, we’re trying to create some proof points, trying to show some real innovation,” he said. “We think that’s a way to challenge the status quo in a pretty profound way.”

In keeping with his push to bring high speed Internet to every classroom, Obama wants $200 million to train teachers in the most effective use of digital tools in the classroom. They would be trained to identify high-quality digital content and to use data to help students learn.

Regarding college affordability, the president is seeking funds for his yet-to-be-released college ratings systems, which his administration says will help students make better consumer choices by identifying colleges that provide the best value. The plan has triggered concern from many colleges and universities, which worry that their value can’t be captured by a relatively simple ratings system.

The budget also calls for an expansion of the “Pay As You Earn” (PAYE) repayment options to all student borrowers. That program caps the repayment of federal student loans at a percentage of income once a student graduates and enters the workforce.

Obama is seeking $7 billion over 10 years to reward colleges that enroll Pell Grant recipients and help them graduate on time. And the president wants $4 billion over 10 years for a fund to encourage states to fund colleges and universities based on outcomes such as on-time graduation rates.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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