President Barack Obama before he delivers the State of the Union address
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President Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget request to congress this week. The Education Policy Program at New America has reviewed the president’s budget and generated a list of key questions that policymakers, the media, stakeholder groups, and the public should ask about the proposals. These are divided into three categories. Those covering PreK-12 are below. Those covering Higher Education are available here. Those covering Workforce Training will be available here.

The President’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, “Investing in America’s Future,” presents a wide set of education investment priorities, from pre-K through college. This year’s budget narrative underscores the progress states have made for introducing more rigorous college- and career-ready standards, and introduces significant funding increases to support states’ education reform efforts. Echoing previous years’ proposals, the budget request includes $75 billion over the next ten years in mandatory funding for Preschool for All, a proposal to partner with states to provide high-quality pre-K to more low- and moderate-income children. And, in addition to upping spending on competitive grants like Investing in Innovation (i3), School Improvement Grants (SIG), and Promise Neighborhoods, the administration proposes increases to Federal formula grants, including a big hike in Title I and modest boosts in English Language Acquisition and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants.

Current congressional priorities for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), however, underscore how far apart this Republican Congress and the Administration are on education policy. Case in point: many of the programs this budget would grow are completely cut in Senator Lamar Alexander’s draft bill (e.g., SIG, i3, Promise Neighborhoods). While it is far from given that Congress will be able to pass an update to ESEA that the President will actually sign, it seems equally unlikely that Congress will pass a budget by October that resembles this Budget Request for education.

But as in past years, at least some of these proposals will get air time and may even make it into a final budget. At the very least, they signal the President’s vision and priorities for the country. So, on that note, here are our questions regarding the 2016 Budget Request:

  • Preschool for All: Once again, the President proposes $75 billion in mandatory funds over 10 years for the Preschool for All program. As part of this initiative, he proposes an expansion of Preschool Development Grants that received $250 million in FY 2014 and FY 2015, funding a competition and 18 winning states. In many cases, though, these were fairly small grants. In FY 2016, the President is requesting an increase of $500 million for this program to expand the number of existing grantees to approximately 40 states. With these new funds, does the Administration also intend to expand existing grant awards to enable the states that won in 2014 to serve more children?

Additionally, Preschool for All would promote access to high-quality full-day kindergarten. This is the third year that the Administration has made full-day kindergarten a priority and, unfortunately, Congress has not followed suit. As we have asked in previous years, does this signal that full-day kindergarten is a stronger priority for the Administration than for Congress?

  • IDEA in Early Education: This year the President proposes an increase of $115 million for IDEA Preschool Grants and Infants and Families programs, including $15 million for a new Pay for Success Initiative. The IDEA Grants for Infants and Families would increase the number of children from birth to age three receiving early screenings and intervention services to approximately 340,000. The Pay for Success Initiative would allow states to fund pilot programs that could allow them to determine the best way to expand early screening and intervention services to infants and toddlers who do not qualify for services under Part C of IDEA in their state.  These pilot programs would allow for private and philanthropic investments to expand promising programs via performance-based funding tied to achieving specific outcomes. In other words, investors only get paid if the programs at least meet certain goals. There are currently a few “Pay for Success” (also known as “Social Impact Bonds”) experiments underway.The logic is that early intervention programs decrease the likelihood that a child will need future supports and would thus create cost savings for school districts once a child enters school.  It’s an idea worth further study and exploration, but is this kind of public-private investment a long-term solution for an ongoing need that impacts children during the most malleable stages of development?
  • Leveraging What Works, Equity and Outcomes Pilots: In this year’s budget request, the President proposes several spending increases in formula grants including calling for a $1 billion increase in Title I formula funds to assist states and districts in meeting the needs of low-income students. This marks the first Title I increase from the current Administration, and it’s a sizable one. Within Title I, the Administration has  proposed two new pilot programs that provide incentives—through increased funding and flexibility—for school districts to more effectively and equitably use their Federal formula funds.

The first of these programs, Leveraging What Works, would provide $100 million in competitive grants to districts that agree to use a portion of their Title I funds, in combination with state and local resources, to provide evidence-based programming that advances low-income students’ outcomes. But the number and size of districts this bonus money will reach remains unclear. Would the bonus funds go toward districts most in need of them, spurring new local investments in evidenced-based programming for disadvantaged students, or would they go toward those already providing such strong supports on their own? Likewise, how would districts guarantee that the additional funds target students most in need?

The second, the Equity and Outcomes pilot, would entail no additional cost and provide up to 10 districts more flexibility in how they spend Title I funds, exempting them from federal reporting and fiscal requirements, in exchange for demonstrating comparability in state and local funding between high- and low-poverty schools. Districts would need to report on student outcomes linked to expenditures to demonstrate effective and efficient use of funds. But what guidance would the Department provide to districts around comparability? And is incentivizing equity through competition between a few districts the best strategy, when equity should be a requirement for all?

  • English Language Acquisition Grants: Under the umbrella of increasing equity, the Administration has proposed a $36 million increase in the Title III English Language Acquisition Grants that support state and district efforts to meet the educational needs of English Learners (ELs). Title III has not seen a measurable increase in years and the $773 million proposed likely remains inadequate to the need. The proposal might be a signal that the Administration is (finally) recognizing the growing number of ELs and the pressing need to provide these students with sufficient resources to promote their success. But how does such a modest increase relate to improvements in ELs’ achievement? Would states actually be able to leverage this funding to actually benefit ELs? Or could the $36 million be better targeted to support research on what works for these students or the development of native-language assessments?
  • New and Revamped Teacher Quality Programs: The President’s budget includes a new mandatory program, Teaching for Tomorrow, which calls for $1 billion annually over five years for states and districts to apply significant changes in how they recruit, support, and seek to retain teachers in the profession. In a budget briefing, the Department indicated that the new program would support states and districts in exploring a variety of human capital models and evidence-based practices—from those adopted by high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland to those implemented locally in districts like DC Public Schools. But, given this flexibility, what common standards or guidance could the Department provide around such changes? While the program sounds promising, more details are needed to know where a new investment—especially one as large as the proposed boost in Title I funding this year—might lead.

Meanwhile, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) Grant program, which provides grants to districts to develop performance pay systems linked to student outcomes in high-needs schools, would expand in scope and funding. Under a new name, Excellent Educators Grants, the Administration proposes $350 million—up from $230 million last year—to help districts and states design and implement comprehensive human capital systems beyond performance pay, from teacher recruitment to development and retention on the job. Given the mixed research on performance pay and the critical need for stronger teacher development and growth opportunities, the expanded program promises to help grow and recognize quality teaching in high-needs schools. But, while the Excellent Educators Grants offer a substantial overall increase in TIF funding, is it enough to match the program’s significantly broadened scope? How much would be allocated for each human capital system component?

Lastly, the Administration calls for the replacement and consolidation of three programs—Teacher Quality Partnership, Transition to Teaching, and School Leadership—into Teacher and Principal Pathways, a $139 million competitive grant program that would support improvements in teacher and leader preparation. The proposal echoes the Administration’s 2010 Blueprint for ESEA reauthorization. Grants would be provided to both institutions of higher education and nonprofit organizations that partner strategically with districts to strengthen teacher and leader pathways. Considering the Department’s newly proposed regulations for teacher preparation programs, how would this proposal align?

  • Education Technology State Grants: Thanks to the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), schools (and libraries) are well on their way toward meeting the first goal of the President’s 2013 ConnectED Initiative: connecting 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband over five years. The ConnectED Initiative additionally prioritized teacher professional development, highlighting the need to help educators integrate new technologies into their practice. To this end, last year the President’s budget included a new proposal for what was coined the ConnectEDucators Program, which would have provided competitive funding for school districts to support teachers’ use of technology and data in classrooms.

This year’s budget has dropped the ConnectEDucators program name, but has proposed the same dollar figure, $200 million, to go toward  Education Technology State Grants. These grants would also be aimed at increasing teacher supports for implementing technology in the classroom. In this iteration, states would make competitive subgrants to high-need districts to support exemplary models for using technology in the classroom. As with the ConnectEDucators proposal, however, districts could only be awarded grants if they already have sufficient broadband infrastructure. But how would the federal government ensure districts with insufficient infrastructure do not fall farther and farther behind, exacerbating the digital divide? Further, what guidance would the Department offer states to ensure that districts with high needs apply for funding, as well as what qualifies as an exemplary model for using technology in the classroom?