THE PRESIDENT’S BUDGET: EDUCATION

Welcome to Fed Ed Policy, a blog that covers developments impacting federal education policy, with an emphasis on K-12 education. For energy, environment, conservation, and animal welfare issues (and past postings on education), please visit my blog, Federal Policy Week.

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The President’s Budget:

President Obama sent his FY15 Budget to Congress.  As expected from Obama’s State of the Union address, the President has again requested funding for universal preschool.   The budget request for the Department of Education includes many familiar programs.  Some highlights include:

  • A new Race to the Top Program – this one focused on closing the achievement gap between races.
  • The ConnectEd Initiative – expanding wireless networks in schools and libraries.  Several major corporations – many will eventually benefit financially- have already pledged to donate to the Initiative.
  • Funding for programs that promote the adoption of the Common Core Curriculum, testing, assessments, and funding for “effective” teachers – some controversial programs that have questionable success, especially for the funding.
  • The President’s college rating program, which has led to concern in many segments of the higher education community  at the ED fora and otherwise,  and a new College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses program for colleges that improve “college education outcomes for low- and moderate-income students.”
  • A reorganization of STEM Programs.

Reaction to the President’s education budget was swift.

The House Education Committee Chairman’s statement criticized the President for expecting “the country to support more of the same.” And, goes on to state “the American people can no longer afford to invest in the president’s failed agenda.”

Other key Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader McConnell and House Majority Leader Boehner generally criticized the budget as unworkable and too costly.

Reaction to the $69 billion budget request by education groups was not surprisingly mixed, with some pet programs getting new or increased funding while other proven programs receiving no increases in funding – many of the pet programs focusing on a continued drive for testing and assessments (euphemistically called “results-driven”).

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Vouchers: Good Money After Bad

While the idea of providing parents and students with publicly-funded vouchers for a private education may appeal to many as a means of leveling the field for students in low-performing schools, in fact, their insidious nature serves merely to exacerbate the problems for public education.  Money intended for children in the public school system is wrongly diverted to private interests.

Behind the push for diverting money designated for public education to privately run schools are often religious organizations and large foundations, like the Walton Foundation.  These foundations fund lobbying groups in various states pressuring lawmakers into moving funds from public schools to privately run schools and provide tax credits for donations to scholarships at private schools.

A look at the problems plaguing the federally funded DC program provides an example of the abuses of the voucher system (See Federal Policy Week posting There’s Something Happening Here).  Problems come from a lack of oversight and a blind rush (and misplaced trust) in the private sector.  Abuses should be expected in jurisdictions that embrace a full voucher program.  Scary as it sounds, North Carolina passed a voucher program that will enable likely poorly regulated “private schools,” defined to include home schools, to siphon off desperately needed public funds.  Stories of mismanaged and failed charter schools are pervasive, often due to rapid expansion and little oversight.  Some states have asserted more control and standards for charters, but the better solution is keep public funding with publicly run schools (not privately-run “publicly schools”), which can include public charters to address specific needs.

Senator Alexander (R-TN) introduced legislation enabling the transfer of federal funds dedicated to public schools to non-public schools in a so-called “follow the student” approach.  This dangerous bill would potentially transfer approximately $24 billion from public schools and allow states to send the funds to parents of “low-income” students to use as scholarships at any “accredited school,” including religious schools, charters, out-of-district public schools, and schools that teach creationism, and were the education is likely to be questionable.  Several states already permit some types of transfer of funds to private schools often with alarmingly bad results (as noted above).  What makes this especially frightening is that Senator Alexander is the Ranking Member of the Senate HELP (Education) Committee and if the Republicans win the Senate, he will be the Chairman and able to control the Committee’s agenda.

While some private schools may provide some isolated children with a better education, there is no evidence that students who attend private schools, including charters, using vouchers perform any better than their fellow public school students.  That also holds true for homeschooling and online education.

Compounding the voucher mistake, the Obama Administration’s misguided sprint to support charters at the expense of traditional public schools has disrupted many low-income communities, by closing schools and displacing veteran teachers.  While genuine public charter schools can have a place in the public school system, they are not the panacea their supporters claim.

Congressional Activities:

House Education Committee:

Senate HELP

Interactive Education Tools, Higher Ed Highlights & Coming Events

Welcome to Fed Ed Policy, a blog that covers developments impacting federal education policy, with an emphasis on K-12 education. For energy, environment, conservation, and animal welfare issues (and past postings on education), please visit my blog, Federal Policy Week.

To subscribe for Fed Ed Policy enter your email address under the “Follow” label at the upper left section of the page.  You will receive a verification email to confirm your subscription.

Administration Actions & Reactions:

Student Access Summit:  President Obama held a meeting with over a hundred higher education leaders at the White House with the goal of encouraging colleges to find ways to increase college attendance by low-income students, many who do not bother to apply to top colleges.  One program, the College Advising Corps, draws on recent graduates to guide low-income high schools through the admission and financial aid process.

President Obama at White House College Opportunity Summit- Official WH Photo

College-Rating Plan Alternative: Many colleges are feeling angst about the Administration’s proposed college-rating plan, which will likely rely on incomplete data.  The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities offered an alternative approach that replaces the rating system with tightening up the process for financial aid and using key metrics, like graduation rates, employment rates, and repayment rates of students, to institutions.

Notable News:

Higher Education Spending: While most states are increasing funding for higher education, the amounts still fall short of the pre-recession funding levels, according to the Grapevine report.  As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the levels and targets of the increased funding vary widely by state, and in some cases are not sufficient to prevent financial stress and layoffs at colleges.  In many cases, schools try to make up for decreased state funding through tuition, making college less accessible to some students.

Liberal Arts Degrees.  It turns out you should probably major in what you like because over the long-term, liberal arts majors, especially those with advanced degrees, make slightly more money and have similar employment rates as those who majored in professional or pre-professional areas of studies (although their salaries fall short of salaries of engineers and science majors).

High-Stakes Testing & Cheating: When teachers, administrators, and schools are judged (with serious repercussions, including school closures and jobs) by their students’ standardized test scores, resulting cheating shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Cheating scandals, in which teachers and/or administrators have erased wrong answers, have occurred in DC under Michelle Rhee, Atlanta, El Paso, TX, and, now, Philadelphia.  While cheating is reprehensible and unacceptable, now is the time to focus on the indefensible requirements advocated by No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration that have created teachers and administrators to engage in such desperate and destructive activities.

Interesting Information on the Internet:

  • The Washington Post: Education Stats, State by State.  This infographic provides data on education statistics by state, including HS graduation rates, college graduation rates, education spending, pregnancy rates, student-teacher ratio rate; and rankings for national test scores.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: College Students in 14 Years.  This tool shows the demographics of American college students over time and in 14 years.  You can download extensive state and national data, that look at race, income, and other factors.

CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS & MARK-UPS:

Senate HELP Committee:

Executive Session: Nominations, January 29, 2014

  • Michael Keith Yudin, to be Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, ED
  • James Cole, Jr. to be General Counsel, ED
  • Theodore Reed Mitchell to be Under Secretary of Education, ED
  • Ericka M. Miller to be Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, ED

House Education & Workforce Committee

Keeping College Within Reach, January 28, 2014

EVENTS IN DC:

If you are interested in education events in DC, below is one such event.  I will provide information on the education events, from all perspectives, in the DC area as they arise.

EDUCATION LEADER RETIRES FROM CONGRESS

Congressman Miller (D-CA), Ranking Member House Education and Workforce Committee announced his retirement from Congress, ending a forty-year career.Official GM photo

Congressman Miller, a liberal democrat and considered by many a leader on education issues (that have not always turned out the way one had imagined) has served as a member of the House Education Committee since first elected in 1974, and served as Chairman from 2007 – 2010.  Miller, a close colleague of Democratic Leader Pelosi (D-CA), he worked with the late Senator Kennedy (D-MA) to push through No Child Left Behind and the restructuring of the federal student loan program.  Rep. Miller earned a reputation as a fierce proponent for equity in education, often championing efforts like “charter schools, merit pay for effective teachers, and a robust role for the federal government in accountability”, all ideas that have failed to achieved equity.

His list of goals prior to departing Congress includes:

  • Find common ground to fix the No Child Left Behind Act.
  • Make college more affordable through the Higher Education Act.
  • Push for passage of the bi-partisan Miller-Harkin-Hanna bill to implement President Obama’s initiative to expand early childhood education services nationally.

It is unclear who will take over the Committee for the Democrats and how education policy will change as result (especially with the retirement of Senator Harkin as the Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee), but the next most senior Democrat on the Committee is Congressman Andrews from NJ, and most likely to take on the lead role.

Relevant Upcoming Events.

UNCORRELATED: TEST SCORES & CRITICAL THINKING

MIT, Harvard, and Brown researchers released results from a recent study showing that increasing test scores on standardized tests do not correlate to increased “ability to analyze abstract problems and think logically.”  These abilities are called “fluid intelligence.”  Current standardized tests measure “crystallized intelligence,” or the knowledge and skills for reading comprehension and memorization tests (i.e. fact or vocabulary tests).

In summary, the study found that for the students gaining knowledge and skills from exposure and experience those improvements did not translate to increased ability to solve problems and think abstractly.  While the study involved students from Massachusetts, the lessons likely apply to other regions of the Nation, including DC, which saw increases in its students’ scores.

Increasing students “crystallized intelligence” translates to higher scores on NEAP, states’ standardized tests, AP and SAT tests, as well as improved basic skills – ones that are necessary for general success.  While the test scores on NEAP and states’ standardized tests may increase, what does the lack of improvement in abstract thinking mean?  Is the conclusion reached in The Washington Post article on this study correct that “the likely takeaway: Teachers have gotten very good at teaching students strategies to do better on tests?”  Are we truly providing our students the skills to think outside of the box? Will our children develop the tools to solve problems and think abstractly – skills necessary to solve the major challenges facing our Nation and world, or just be better test takers?  This approach, of encouraging memorization over abstract thinking contributes to what I call our “race to mediocrity,” in which we strive to bring everyone to a proficient level of competence at the risk of losing what our Nation needs to prosper in the future.

On the policy side, one salient question remains:  Will Congress or ED “encourage” states to incorporate teaching of skills to improve “fluid intelligence” or simply focus on improving standardized test scores?

THE FY14 OMNIBUS: EDUCATION FUNDING

Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that covers spending for the rest of FY2014, avoiding another government shutdown.  Both the House and Senate Committees released political statements on the bill, as well as a brief and detailed summary.

Overall, the bill retains the status quo, but with a bit of additional funds, the Committees restored some of the money lost to The Sequester.   What about some of the education programs covered by Fed Ed Policy? A comprehensive chart of education funding is here and below are a few high (and low) lights of the funding changes from the FY13 levels (some taken directly from the House Democrats and Senate Democrats’ summaries):

Department of Education: $70.6 billion. This is $739 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level

Early Education, Pre K- 12 Education (ED and HHS funds):

  • Child Care & Development Block Grants: $2.36 billion for, which is an increased over the FY 2013 enacted level.  These grants to states are for child care assistance to working families, and to otherwise improve the quality of child care programs.
  • Head Start: $8.6 billion for, which is $612 million more than the FY 2013 enacted level, sufficient to both fully restore the cuts to Head Start and to invest ($500 Million) in the Administration’s Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. Head Start provides comprehensive early childhood services to children and families from before birth through age five.
  • Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies: $14.4 billion for, which is $103 million less than the 2013 enacted level but $625 million more than the post-sequester level. These funds help schools, particularly those with concentrations of economically disadvantaged students, meet high academic achievement standards
  • Special Education State Grants (IDEA): $11.5 billion for, which is $82 million less than the 2013 enacted level but $498 million more than the post-sequester level.
  • DC Vouchers: Includes funding for the highly criticized and poorly managed DC Voucher Program (See Federal Policy Week – GAO Report on DC Charters).
  • School Improvement Programs: Funding included for new programs, but there is no restoration of funds ($506 M) cut by The Sequester.
  • Race to the Top: $250 million, a decrease of $270 million from FY 2013.

Higher Education:

  • Pell Grants: The bill maintains level funding for the Pell Grant program at $22.8 billion As per existing statute, the maximum Pell Grant award is increased to $5,730 (increase of $85), funded by a combination of discretionary and mandatory funds.
  • First in the World: $75 million to create the First in the World Initiative. This initiative will provide grants to colleges and universities to implement innovative and effective strategies that improve outcomes and reduce the net price paid by students.
  • TRIO Programs: $838 million, an increase of $42 million, to help low-income and first generation college students plan, prepare for, and succeed in college through the TRIO programs.
  • Non-profit Loan Providers: Funding restored after it was eliminated in December.
  • National Research Council Study on Federal Regulations Impact on Higher Education: $1 million.

What is NOT funded:

Evolution: A Theory Under Attack

Fed Ed Policy focuses on federal education policy, but every once in a while an issue is raised that deserves attention – not for the direct impact on federal policy, but because it provides context for education in America.  Evolution – and the controversy surrounding it – is one such issue.

In science, a theory is supported by a multitude of testing; it is not just an opinion.   Evolution is an accepted scientific theory.  For this blog, I will assume that you accept the Theory of Evolution as valid science.  You probably know, decades after the Scopes Trial, some segments of American society still challenge the validity of the Theory.

A new analysis by the PewResearch Religion and Public Life Project found that nearly one-third (33%) of American adults do not believe in evolution, believing instead that “humans existed in present form since beginning.” Of the 60% of Americans who do believe in evolution “humans and other living things have evolved over time”), nearly half (or 24% of the total adult population) believe that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”  In fact only 32% of American adults believe in scientific evolution or that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection.”  (As a side note, it turns out that while the overall rate of American adults believing in evolution has remained steady since 2009, more adults who identify themselves as Republicans reject evolution, from 54% to just 43%).

So, with everyone, including Congress, the Obama Administration, private foundations, businesses, pushing for higher standards to develop students who can compete globally, how do we address willful ignorance? How as a country do we succeed when so many American adults (including some Members of Congress) completely reject basic scientific teachings (not to mention climate change, where again Members of Congress fall flat)?  These people have children; they teach in our schools (hopefully not science, but maybe at religious schools), they help run our government and determine policy – and thereby directly and indirectly influence our children, our students, and our future.  Something to ponder.

(Watch this video

of Representative Broun (R-GA), a member of the House Science Committee,  talking about evolution).