Obama’s Budget Makes Education a Major Exception to Austerity

Posted by on Friday, February 5, 2010 2:03 - 0 Comments

By Paul Basken, February 1, 2010

President Barack Obama on Monday proposed a $3.8-trillion federal budget for the 2011 fiscal year that includes $77.8-billion in total Education Department spending, a 31-percent increase that is driven largely by a plan to increase the value of Pell Grants faster than inflation.

The budget recommendation sent to the Democrat-controlled Congress makes education the most prominent exception to the administration’s promise of a net freeze on nondefense discretionary spending in the budget for 2011, which anticipates a deficit of $1.27-trillion.

As part of the plan, Mr. Obama, for the second year in a row, asked Congress to make the Pell Grant, the main federal aid program for low-income college students, an entitlement that receives an automatic budget allocation each year to meet the number of students who qualify.

He also proposed that the grant’s maximum per-student value increase each year by the rate of inflation plus one percentage point, bringing it from $5,550 in 2010 to $5,710 in 2011 and an estimated $6,900 in 2019. The president also proposed more-favorable repayment options for students taking federally subsidized loans.

“America’s economic security depends on improving education,” Mr. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, said in outlining the proposal on Monday. “We have to educate our way to a better economy.”

Over all, the administration proposed $49.7-billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, an increase of 7.5 percent over the current year’s federal budget for non-entitlement programs. Most of that increase would go to programs for elementary and secondary education.

The president’s proposal, with few exceptions, won praise from higher-education leaders and advocates, even as they acknowledged the difficulty Congress will face in fully adopting it at a time of economic turmoil and budgetary restraint.

The Pell Grant proposal represents “a massive increase” that will help large numbers of students make the decision to attend college, said Richard T. Williams, a higher-education lobbyist at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer-advocacy organization.

Teacher Training a Concern

Mr. Obama’s plan, nevertheless, found some critics in higher education, including representatives of colleges of education alarmed by a proposal to shift jurisdiction over teacher-training programs into the part of the department’s budget that finances elementary and secondary education.

The proposed shift, which would create a new “Teacher and Leader Pathways” program in place of “Teacher Quality Partnerships” at the higher-education level, appears “shortsighted and counterintuitive,” said Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Mr. Obama has urged colleges of education to do a better job of giving teachers hands-on training. Ms. Robinson said she recognized the proposed shift in federal programs as an attempt to give elementary- and secondary-school systems more options for finding innovative training opportunities.

But that effort has not been accompanied by tighter quality controls on alternative teacher-training systems, Ms. Robinson said. For instance, she said, states don’t typically require graduates of alternative-education programs to prove their abilities in a classroom setting, even though that is required of graduates of traditional teacher colleges.

“This is a very bold proposal,” she said of the administration plan, “and I have to use my imagination to imagine that it’s going to work in the interest of continuing to support reform in teacher education.”

An association of colleges serving low-income students also complained about Mr. Obama’s proposal to maintain a budget of $910-million for TRIO programs, which help guide financially needy students into and through college.

The failure to seek a spending increase for TRIO “undermines the Obama administration’s education agenda,” Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a lobbying group for the TRIO programs, said in a statement. Several other programs for needy students-including child care, work study, and the Gear Up college-preparatory program-also were proposed by Mr. Obama to receive no increase over their current appropriations.

Over all, however, the proposed acceleration in spending on education may only mean a further postponement in “the day of budget reckoning” awaiting the nation, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“The public always is in favor of increases in education spending in theory, because it’s motherhood and apple pie,” said Mr. Sabato, a professor of politics. “Tax increases and tuition hikes are unpopular, of course. Few take the time or mental energy to put the pieces together.”

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