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Obama's Budget Boosts Preschool, Access To Top Teachers, But Freezes Many Education Programs

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OBAMA BUDGET
President Barack Obama sits with Marcus Wesby and other preschool student during his visit to Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Obama visited the school to talk about his fiscal 2015 federal budget proposal, which was released today. Powell elementary has seen rapid growth in recent years and serves a predominantly Hispanic student body. Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who greeted Obama at the school, recently directed $20 million to P | ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama's 2015 budget request increases education funding 2 percent over the previous year, cheering many education advocates, and proposes a revamped Race to the Top competition that focuses on opportunity for all students and a tobacco tax to pay for a previously-announced preschool expansion effort.

Obama announced the budget, which would restore across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, at Powell Elementary School in Washington.

"We know -- and this is part of the reason why we’re here today -- that education has to start at the earliest possible ages," Obama said. "So this budget expands access to the kind of high-quality preschool and other early learning programs to give all of our children the same kinds of opportunities that those wonderful children that we just saw are getting right here at Powell."

In a call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the budget speech setting was no accident. "In tough economic times, education is receiving the largest non-defense increase" in discretionary spending, Duncan said.

Many newer education initiatives, such as a high school redesign competition, receive a boost in Obama's budget. But some key programs, including most parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title I -- the main source of federal education cash for students in poverty -- and special education research, were flatlined. The only increase in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was in a section known as Part C, for babies, and a new competitive grant for results-driven accountability in special education.

"We're very excited about that," said Lindsay Jones, head of public policy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "It's smart to start moving states in that direction. But I'm disappointed overall in the massive freeze."

Some education advocates, however, said they were thrilled.

“We applaud the president for moving towards ending the era of austerity and recognizing the need to protect Social Security," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. "Replacing the unnecessary automatic budget cuts, known as sequester, which caused significant and harmful damage to schools and working families, with smart investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development is necessary to move the country forward." Van Roekel praised the preschool expansion and an initiative that would make college tax credits permanent.

Charles Barone, policy head for the interest group Democrats for Education Reform, also praised the plan.

"The Obama administration has put forth a much-needed plan to invest $300 million in pilot efforts to narrow student equality gaps in areas such as helping highly effective teachers stay in high-need schools, among other options," Barone said. "These efforts nicely fit with the FY 2015 budget’s theme of increasing economic prosperity."

Obama's budget is unlikely to win approval from the divided Congress. Shortly after the president's speech, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, issued a skeptical statement.

"Today’s budget proposal includes hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to fund new federal programs. In critical areas such as early learning, job training, and higher education, the president wants to make an existing maze of programs even more costly and confusing," Kline said. "Spending more money on broken programs will not provide the support our most vulnerable children, workers, and families desperately need."

Some of these initiatives -- such as a teacher support program and the tobacco tax-funded preschool expansion -- were in last year's budget, but failed to win significant funding in Congress. The high school redesign competition was launched with $100 million in Department of Labor discretionary funding.

The budget provoked skepticism, along with praise, from American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten, often but not always an Obama ally.

“While we are pleased with the overall intent of the budget proposal, we are skeptical that a Race to the Top-like competition, which creates winners and losers, is the way to promote equity," Weingarten said. "Public education should be focused on strengthening teaching and learning for all students and maintaining and improving neighborhood public schools."

Race to the Top was first used to dangle economic stimulus money in front of states to encourage certain Obama-favored education reforms, such as higher learning standards, teacher evaluations that reflect student test scores, and more charter schools. More recent -- and smaller -- iterations of the program have included a competition designed to increase preschool quality and one aimed at encouraging school districts to sponsor innovations in so-called personalized learning.

The new $300 million program, known as "Race to the Top -- Equity and Opportunity," would have states and districts develop plans to vie for funds to help them "drive comprehensive change in how ... [they] identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps," according to an administration memo. The grants may support things like extended learning time, tougher classes, and making sure disadvantaged students have equal access to the best teachers.

The budget also includes $200 million in a "new investment for helping teachers prepare to be successful with increased tech tools," Duncan said, as well as additional funding for school safety.

As in previous years, Obama zeroed out funds for the Washington, D.C., school voucher program, which gives families public money to send their children to private schools. Kara Kerwin, president of the right-leaning Center for Education Reform, said the budget's failure to embrace vouchers "is unacceptable."

Charter school advocates, whose work is often championed by Obama, said they also feel slighted. Obama proposed $248 million for charter schools in his new budget, compared with $295 million proposed in the previous year.

“The president’s request for charter schools is insufficient and fails to bring the Charter Schools Program back to pre-sequester levels," said Nina Rees, who leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "Given the budget’s focus on education equity, it is surprising to see the lack of funding for charter schools."

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