President Obama wants a significant jump in education funding to pay for Pell grants for needy college students while also financing his reform agenda for elementary and secondary schools.
But House Republicans want deep, immediate cuts in both areas, setting up a clash early in the new Congress.
"It's a very stark contrast," said Joel Packer of the Committee for Education Funding, which represents dozens of education groups.
Among domestic programs, education comes out a winner in the president's fiscal 2012 budget released Monday: Spending overall would rise 11 percent, to more than $77 billion.
Much of that growth would support keeping the maximum Pell grant at $5,550 a year. With Obama's backing, the college-access program has grown over the past two years as economic troubles have led far more students to qualify for the grants. Grant recipients are projected to rise from about 6 million in 2008 to more than 9 million in 2012, putting heavy pressure on the federal budget.
Obama proposes to trim aspects of the Pell program to save money, but overall he would raise Pell funding more than $5 billion.
House Republicans would lower the maximum Pell grant to $4,705 and cut other education spending by $4.9 billion, according to their spending proposal for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The GOP proposal is likely to face opposition from Senate Democrats.
Aside from Pell grants, Obama proposed increases of $300 million for the school anti-poverty program known as Title I and about $200 million for special education.
Obama also wants $900 million to extend his signature Race to the Top school reform contest to individual school districts, with some of the money targeting rural areas. Previously Race to the Top targeted only states. The president is seeking smaller amounts for various initiatives, including $80 million to improve teacher preparation in fields such as science and math. He proposes eliminating 13 education programs and merging 38.
For most schools, the funding debate on Capitol Hill is likely to pale in importance compared with the fiscal battles emerging in statehouses across the country.
Even if Obama wins approval for all of his proposals - which is doubtful, given the House Republican opposition - new federal spending would not come close to offsetting education cuts expected at state and local levels.
"Regardless of what happens to the federal education budget ... education spending overall is going to take a huge hit this year," wrote Michael Petrilli, a former Bush administration education official who is now an analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.