In an era of budget cutting, one of the few places that the White House is pushing for significantly more funding is in education. President Obama’s request for fiscal 2012 seeks almost $28 billion more than last year—from $49.7 billion for education to $77.4 billion.
This is the first real indication that Obama is putting his money where his mouth is, and that he will push for a full reauthorization of the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. The White House wants the updated law to build on ideas behind the Education Department's Race to the Top program, which allows states to compete for extra money if they demonstrate innovative ways to boost student achievement. “Too often, funds are allocated based on variables that are not tied to success or the educational goals we need to reach to educate a competitive workforce,” the budget request said. “The administration will work with Congress to restructure K-12 funding to focus resources on the nation’s most critical educational goals.”
Rewriting No Child Left Behind is a tall order. The last time around, passing the act took the full force of a newly elected president—it was President George W. Bush’s No. 1 domestic priority--and arduous negotiations of high-level lawmakers. Still, No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan bill in 2001, and optimists like Duncan say that it can be a bipartisan bill this time around.
Race to the Top has faced criticism among congressional Republicans and program applicants for being too prescriptive about how states and school boards operate. Duncan asserts that Race to the Top has been the most successful school initiative in years because it has caused 41 states to adopt common core-achievement standards.
In seeking $1.4 billion for the program, the White House envisions three new initiatives to continue its Race to the Top competitive grants. The lion’s share of the Race to the Top funding, $900 million, would go to a new K-12 grant program focusing solely on school districts; the first two rounds of Race to the Top funding went to states. (Sending money to school districts helps the agency leverage fewer dollars by focusing on the areas where even a small influx of cash could get a new school turnaround program off the ground.) The White House is also seeking $350 million for a new grant program devoted to early learning that would be run jointly with the Health and Human Services Department, and $150 million for a grant program that would fund initiatives that improve college access.
The administration requested $1.35 billion last year for Race to the Top, but the requests did not make it through the congressional appropriations process. House appropriators were never all that fond of Race to the Top, so it’s entirely possible the program will get zeroed out in forthcoming funding discussions. But if that happens, the White House now is on record as saying that it would oppose such an effort.