President Obama broke no new ground in education when he released the fiscal 2015 budget proposal last week. He didn't need to. The main themes of the Education Department's proposal—expanded access to preschool and lowering college costs—are already winners with the public. The White House budget is essentially a political document, so it makes sense that the president would hammer on those themes
Obama proposed $1.3 billion in 2015 that would encourage states to provide preschool options for all four-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families. It's not a bad policy, considering that early education is one of the best places to invest in kids. The overall proposal, $75 billion over 10 years, isn't a huge request considering that the president is seeking a total of $4 trillion just next year.
But it's not going to happen. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., had this to say the day the budget plan came out. "Today's budget proposal includes hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to fund new federal programs. …The president wants to make an existing maze of programs even more costly and confusing."
My favorite part of the pre-K proposal is how the White House proposes to pay for it, by increasing in the tobacco tax. Obama has already hiked cigarette taxes substantially on behalf of kids, which means he understands the political consequences of such a move. (Tax hawks don't like it.) In 2009, he signed an expansion of the federal children's health insurance program that more than doubled the federal cigarette tax. This was after President Bush had vetoed the same proposal twice. For cancer prevention advocates, Obama was a hero. There is no reason for him not to deploy the same logic, sin taxes for kids, for expanded preschool.
On higher education, the administration is in a better position to make some actual policy headway. Obama is seeking $29.2 billion in 2015 to provide Pell Grants to some 8.9 million college students. The maximum Pell Grant award would also increase by $100 to $5,830 for the 2015-2016 school year under his plan. For lawmakers, increases to Pell Grants are a much easier lift than a brand new preschool program with an accompanying tax hike. Traditionally, Pell Grants are on autopilot in Congress. Messing with the formula would cause a huge outcry from the student aid community. Lawmakers specifically exempted Pell Grants from mandatory across-the-board budget trimming under sequestration, and subsequent government funding bills have also shielded the program.
Those are the headline grabbing items of Obama's education budget, but there are smaller programmatic requests that deserve attention. Even if they don't come to fruition this year, they will likely remain as administration priorities over the next several years and could worm their way into legislation. For example, Obama is proposing $300 million for a new Race to the Top "Equity and Opportunity" competition to award money to states and school districts that create "extensive interventions" for closing the achievement gap. He is seeking $200 million to connect public schools to high-speed Internet. He proposes $80 million to prevent gun violence by helping schools use "behavioral intervention practices" and "provide support and services to children exposed to pervasive violence."
These are small steps toward a broader goal of making school a more productive and growth-oriented experience for all students. Taken in that spirit, the budget is useful in giving policymakers and advocates a road map for where we may be going next. Even if it takes a long time.
For our insiders: What is the most important part of Obama's education budget proposal? What can the White House accomplish with its focus on preschool? How likely is it that Obama's Pell Grant request will be altered by Congress? What makes it so hard for lawmakers to cut Pell Grants yet so easy for them to shun other proposed education programs? Which of the administration's smaller programmatic proposals are mostly likely to become a reality? Why?
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