President Barack Obama’s 2017 proposed education budget, released Feb. 9, aims to tackle issues of college debt and affordability as well as bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related learning.
The proposal also endeavors toward expanding funding for teacher training with a suggested $69.4 billion in discretionary funds and $139.7 billion in new mandatory spending over the next decade.
The budget, which marks a two-percent increase over the 2016 appropriation, allocated money to new programs, including $4 billion over three years for computer science instruction, $75 billion for nationwide preschool programs and $61 billion over the next decade to provide free community college for students who maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.5.
The single largest apportionment on the budget was $15.4 billion devoted to the U.S. Department of Education’s Title I program, which aims to expand educational opportunities for economically or socially-disadvantaged students. Acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said the budget reflects the Obama administration’s commitment to advancing educational equity in school systems.
“We have made tremendous progress with record high school graduation rates and more students of color going to college, but we have further to go to ensure that educational excellence is a reality for all students,” King said in a press release Feb. 9. “This budget builds on the Administration’s continued efforts to invest in education, from high-quality early learning through college.”
The proposal faces an uphill battle for approval from Republicans in Congress, who generally oppose measures to augment general federal funding and have expressed little support for programs such as free community college. Georgetown’s Program on Education, Inquiry and Justice Director Douglas Reed, who also serves as professor of education policy, said the budget is unlikely to clear the Republican-dominated Congress.
“The administration may have proposed a lot of stuff, but it’s more of a wish list than anything else,” Reed said. “The odds of it passing in its current form are basically zero.”
Among the most ambitious aspects of the budget is its emphasis on ushering classrooms into the digital era and enhancing STEM education. Aside from the funding for its “Computer Science for All” Program, the president also incorporated $125 million to train teachers in high-demand subjects like math and science.
While Reed commended the federal government’s allocation of resources toward infrastructure conducive to scientific learning, he expressed skepticism over its ability to improve instructional quality in math and science.
“Especially in the inner city, there’s a huge problem with attracting people who can teach science or math, and there is a lot of research that shows students do a lot better in math or science when they have a teacher who has a degree in math or science,” Reed said. “It’s very hard to really influence the supply of math and science teachers because the alternative careers for people with math and science degrees are a lot more lucrative.”
In the place of funding going toward teacher training, Reed suggested allocating money for technological equipment in schools.
“The federal government is better positioned to provide infrastructure like computers and ensuring every kid has access to high-speed internet, which not all schools do,” Reed said.
Lucretia Witte (GRD ’16), president of EduWonks, a graduate student group focusing on education policy, said another challenge is that federal budgetary measures regarding STEM education may not realistically be implemented in schools as they were initially imagined at the national level. Federal funding comprises only 12 percent of school funding, with the rest provided at the state and local level.
“Local context is very important. There might be bigger hurdles in an area because, let’s say, you can’t get computers in an inner city school because of theft or because we’re in a rural area and don’t have good internet connectivity,” Witte said. “I think there is a risk that these plans won’t go into effect exactly as intended, but it depends on what the main challenges are in the local s
chool district, how progressive the local superintendent is about technology education, how much economy is given to school leaders –— all these impact how federal education policy will be carried out.”
Witte also questioned Obama’s policies regarding postsecondary education, which aimed to alleviate the financial burden of higher education through free community college as well as increases in Pell Grants for low-income students and benefits to previously incarcerated individuals.
“I don’t think this policy will have the desired impact of getting more low-income people in community college who wouldn’t already be attending,” Witte said. “Instead we would expect to see that people who might otherwise go to four-year schools opt for free community college because it’s a more attractive option financially. If we do see that happening, that could even edge out more of the folks that we would be helping to get through school in this budget item.”
Reed argued that the policy might fail to meet its intended goals if avenues of communication are not established between four-year institutions and community colleges.
“You can go to a community college and take classes, but if none of them transfer afterward that doesn’t help you get a four year degree. State public universities have done a great job about communicating their expectations from community colleges, but private universities have done a really lousy job,” Reed said. “If it doesn’t translate, and if we don’t have the kind of communication about what the pathways are, that could be kind of a problem.”
Luis Gonzalez (COL ’19), who aspires to a career in education, said that he understood why some reject the profession as a viable career option.
“Several of my teachers made a difference in my life, and, as a result, I want to be a difference maker too, but because education isn’t exactly lucrative, people are not interested in pursuing careers in education,” Gonzalez said. “Students, not just here at Georgetown but elsewhere as well, want to pursue careers that will pay more, and a career in education will not be enough to pay the student debt many students acquire in college.”
Gonzalez added that the federal budget should address more systemic problems that hinder the education of vulnerable students.
“If I could add to the education budget, I would for sure make sure I added funds specifically dedicated for what I would call community enrichment,” Gonzalez said. “From my experience growing up in a district with a high number of low-income families, students have to defy economic barriers in order to become successful students. We are expected to be great students, but we live in tight spaces where gang violence and drugs are present. There are things that clearly affect how we perform in school.”
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