Why Education Advocates Join the Progressive Opposition to Obama’s Budget

Jeff Bryant

Now that every major media outlet has weighed in on the budget that President Obama introduced last week, the conventional wisdom is that Obama has proposed a “balance” of new revenues and spending cuts with an emphasis on sacrificing “entitlements” enjoyed by old people in order to increase “investments” in children.

This sensibility was most obvious in a quote in The New York Times from Virginia Senator Mark Warner who talked about “the math on entitlements” causing the federal government to “squeeze early-childhood programs … Head Start,” and “education.”

Warner continued, “There’s nothing progressive about a business or any other enterprise to invest less than 5 percent of its revenues on the education of its work force … and that’s what we’re doing.”

The “rift” the Times article refers to over the Obama administration’s budget became even more obvious when a broad coalition of progressive groups took to the streets in immediate opposition to Social Security cuts – known as “Chained CPI” – while the Center for American Progress hailed the budget’s proposals for early childhood education as “historic,” and Democrats for Education Reform gave the it “high praise” for it education measures.

The narrative that there’s a sort of generational warfare breaking out in the Democratic Party is remarkably false, though. Because Social Security spending is completely independent from the budget, it in no way puts a “squeeze” on how much the federal government spends on education and children.

Further, Democrats who fear opposition to Social Security cuts included in the Obama budget runs the risk of scuttling worthwhile spending on the younger generation should rest assured their fears are unwarranted.

What the Obama administration is proposing for education is in no way worth the sacrifice being demanded from the elderly, disabled, and poor.

What’s Being Praised

For sure, education items in the Obama administration’s proposed budget seem attractive at first glance.

As Education Week’s Alyson Klein observed, the proposed new outlays would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s spending “to $71.2 billion for fiscal year 2014” – a “4.6 increase” over what the DOE was spending before the automatic sequester cuts took effect.

“This would constitute the largest expansion of educational opportunity in the 21st century,” the article quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

What’s most often praised in the budget plan is the new money allotted for a big expansion of prekindergarten programs. The Center for American Progress, in the article cited above, labeled the program a “bold new $75 billion investment in preschool over 10 years,” claiming the investment “would significantly shrink the preschool-access gap by helping states establish and expand high-quality programs.”

Other big-ticket items in the budget proposal were to boost the federal government’s spending on competitive grant programs, including

  • $300 million for a “competitive-grant program aimed at helping high schools better prepare students for post-secondary education and the workplace and focus on science, math, engineering, and technology.”
  • $1 billion more for a new Race to the Top competition focused on higher education.
  • A big increase for the School Improvement Grant program, including $125 million for “school turnarounds.”

So, what could be wrong with these?

What’s Problematic

Despite the near-universal praise for the Obama budget’s support for early childhood education, more critical takes on the proposal have turned up some serious problems.

As The Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits pointed out, the proposal does not “require states to actually expand preschool offerings. Rather, it would give incentives for them to do so.”

Paraphrasing early education expert Sara Mead, Resmovits noted, “The federal government can’t mandate that states expand preschool,” so many states that have been unwilling to expand these services will quite probably continue to do so.

Resmovits likened the proposal to the Affordable Care Act, with its optional health insurance exchanges that have been rejected by 21 states.

“But the preschool incentive may be even less compelling to states than Obamacare,” Resmovits wrote, “since Preschool for All doesn’t help governors fulfill a federal mandate.”

Raising further complications, Sara Meade, who Resmovits cited, had more to say about the Obama preschool proposal at the blog site Education Sector.

Meade wondered about other impediments to implementing the pre-K program, such as whether “quality requirements” would “make states hesitant to take the funds.”

She also noted that at the 10-year target range for new federal outlays, as a percent of funding for early childhood education, would actually be “lower than the current federal share of all government spending on early childhood education (where federal funds account for the majority of public dollars).”

How does this “incentivize” states?

The increases to competitive grant programs in the proposed budget pose complications as well. There is emerging evidence that requirements for federal education grants often result in new costs to school districts that exceed the money rewarded in the grant.

Many school districts across the state of New York, an RTTT winner, have come to the realization that “no one did the math,” as one school superintendent put it, to see whether the federal grant would cover the costs of the very heavy strings attached.

School officials, according to this account, “are finding they will have to spend significantly more – perhaps 50 to 100 times as much, in some cases – to meet Race to the Top’s demanding requirements.”

Yet, many of the districts either got no federal money or “received grants of less than $50,000.”

Similarly, in Ohio, which was awarded its RTTT grant in 2010, “about 80 districts and charter schools across the state” recently backed out of participating in the program because “school officials realized that grants weren’t enough to cover the requirements attached to them.”

What’s Missing

While backers of the Obama budget like to recite the big numbers associated with the proposal’s preschool and competitive grants, what they often fail to mention is that the budget areas where the federal government has traditionally had the most effect on education – Title I grants for disadvantaged students and special education funds stemming from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – have been completely level-funded.

This is especially problematic at a time when the nation is experiencing sharp increases in child poverty; now 23 percent of all children live in poverty.

Further, the federal government’s obligation to cough up its share of spending on special education students is long overdue. As this blog post recently pointed out, the original legislation establishing IDEA obligated the federal government to pay up to “40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure.”

But federal expenditure levels are currently nowhere near 40 percent, making special education, essentially, “an unfunded mandate.”

These are indeed glaring omissions in what the administration is proposing.

Educators Voice Concerns

It’s telling that even a constituency normally reflexively supportive of increased education spending – the nation’s teachers’ unions – is none too pleased with the president’s proposals.

One communiqué from the National Education Association called the budget proposal “a mixed bag for those who care about students, schools and working families” acknowledging that the budget proposal cuts the “social safety net.”

In a more formal statement, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel repeated this concern, stating the budget failed at being “balanced and fair by demanding more of the wealthiest and corporations while staying true to our nation’s commitment to seniors and those most in need.”

Van Roekel also lamented that spending increases are in the form of competitive grants that states have to apply for. “This is disappointing,” he said, “because competitive grants leave too many students behind.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also voiced “serious concerns” about the budget’s cuts to Social Security and Medicare that “are irresponsible and untimely.”

What Just Happened?

In the conventional wisdom of how Washington is supposed to work, things aren’t going to plan.

Those aligning with the “special interests” devoted to education funding should have been bought off by the carrot dangled before them rather than joining the resistance defending what heretofore have been “old people’s issues” – Social Security and Medicare.

Things may yet work out as the David Brookses of the world would have it, where Democrats “get a lot of the good ideas” the pundit class has allotted to them – such as, um, making more men “marriageable” (?) – while Republicans get to “restructure” America to benefit their corporate benefactors rather than ordinary Americans.

But what seems equally, if not more so, likely is that progressive Democrats have rallied around a unifying principle to defend the common good.

What has become the galvanizing issue today – defending Social Security – will perhaps set a precedent for resistance in the future from a coalition that unites the “special interests” of young and old.

This post originally appeared on the Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future.

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