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Budget 2012: Education and the Audacity of Hope

As seasoned observers have acknowledged, a sharply divided Washington makes President Obama’s budget this year at least as much a political act as a policy one. Ambitious new initiatives stand little chance at passage. Yet it’s still worth asking how the administration sees education through a political lens. After all, President Obama identified education as one of the central pillars for investment in his State of the Union call to “win the future.”

Let’s start then with the top line. The Department of Education surfaces as one of the clear winners in the FY 2012 Obama budget. While the budget freezes non-security-related discretionary spending overall, spending at Education would rise 11 percent under the president’s proposal. Much of the increase is for pre-K through 12 spending, expanding and/or restructuring programs like Title I, Investing in Innovation (I3), support for early education, and Race to the Top, under the auspices of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (popularly known as No Child Left Behind).

The budget also goes to great lengths to maintain the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 amid increasing enrollments and eligibility during the economic downturn and slow recovery. While budgeters on Capitol Hill will likely focus on these trimming these subsidies for lower-income students (House Republicans have proposed to cut the maximum grant by $845 in fiscal year 2011 and cut student eligibility by 1.7 million), chances are little will be said about the $5 billion HOPE credit, the benefits of which largely go to students from middle-class families.

Race to the Top and I3 are beginning to leave imprints on the administration’s preferred approach to funding other aspects of education. For instance, the budget proposes converting the $150 million Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, increasingly a Congressional earmark factory, into a “First in the World” competition to improve college access and completion, modeled explicitly on the I3 program. This is in addition to a $50 million College Completion Incentive Grants program, which would match states’ own performance-based funding for post-secondary institutions--and presumably encourage more states to institute such funding models. The budget also proposes, as it did last year, to create an Early Learning Challenge Fund to improve the quality of early childhood programs (hopefully by supporting new models that don’t force educators into traditional bachelor’s degrees).

The administration’s focus on innovation is further exemplified by a $90 million proposal to create ARPA-ED, modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to support “breakthrough” developments in education technology and learning systems. Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead wrote about this for us in a 2008 paper, but Andy reminds us how tricky it will be to manage, absent reforms that better insulate competitions from politics and conflicts of interest.

Not everyone was a winner in the department’s budget, however. Support for career and technical education, for instance, much of which is directed to financially-strapped community colleges, would drop by about $260 million. Of course, even programs that manage to achieve stable or increased funding are unlikely to make up for the severe cuts being carried out at the state and local levels. And all this is before Congress gets its hands on the budget; it’s hard to imagine substantial increases surviving a House majority that has proposed to cut $5 billion from the current year’s education budget.

Even if new programs and spending fail to materialize this year, the administration’s FY 2012 budget sends a clear message that spending on education remains a central part of its economic strategy for the country. Notwithstanding the rancor in Washington over reducing federal spending, over 60 percent of Americans still think that federal spending on education should be increased, the highest of any area. Expect the president and Secretary Duncan to make the most of that popular support during what is sure to be a tough and prolonged budget battle.