Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have featured prominently in the Obama administration’s education policy priorities, most recently as the focus of the third round of Race to the Top funding. And it looks like it will play a big role moving forward: An announcement from President Obama at today’s White House Science Fair offers a peek into the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, which will apparently include a spotlight on STEM learning. But the real story is buried behind the budget rhetoric – the president also proposes a new STEM focus to the existing Teacher Incentive Fund program, which will require no Congressional action.
The details on the budget request should not be ignored, of course. This year, says the White House, the president’s budget request will include a host of new and revitalized STEM programs. Among them is $80 million for a new competitive grant program to provide funding for STEM teacher preparation programs. The federal funds will be accompanied by private investments from a coalition of companies and organizations called 100Kin10; 14 members will collectively contribute $22 million to a fund dedicated to STEM teacher preparation and support, distributed by the group. These efforts are a follow-up to his 2011 State of the Union address, in which Obama issued a challenge to the education community to prepare 100,000 new STEM teachers.
The president will also propose a $100 million investment in the National Science Foundation to support new and existing programs to improve the quality of postsecondary STEM education. He will resubmit a request for funding for the First in the World program, now with a new STEM priority. The program would reward applicants with innovative ideas for improving college completion rates and lowering the costs of postsecondary education. And the president will recommend a joint Department of Education-National Science Foundation project to support K-16 education reforms through evidence-based approaches to mathematics learning. The project will be jointly funded, with $30 million contributed each from the Department and NSF.
But it is unlikely that Congress will even pass a budget for fiscal year 2013 before the fiscal year begins – many members will be busy running for reelection or consumed by the presidential election – so most of these proposals probably won’t see the light of day on the Hill.
Instead, the real story lies in the proposals that require no Congressional approval.
The Department of Education, promised the announcement, will continue to focus on STEM education in its next Race to the Top (RTT) competition. This refers to the nearly $550 million Congress appropriated for Race to the Top in its fiscal year 2012 budget. The competition, which is open to both states and school districts, is likely to take place later this year.
More significantly, however, the president announced that a portion of funding already appropriated for the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2012 Teacher Incentive Fund – $300 million – will be newly dedicated to improving “compensation, evaluation, and professional development systems for STEM educators.” These types of interventions have the potential to strengthen the STEM teacher force by attracting and retaining STEM professionals in teaching. And because the change will require no legislative changes, the Department can begin to implement it immediately, starting with the next round of TIF grants.
To improve general teacher quality, the president announced that the TEACH Grant program, funded with nearly $24 million in fiscal year 2012 to distribute grants to undergraduate students who plan to teach in schools that serve low-income students, will now target postsecondary students at top schools. The Department will also factor quality into its TEACH Grant distribution.
President Obama’s proposal represents a marked policy shift toward focusing on STEM, adding some weight to his rhetoric on improving STEM readiness. But most of the administration’s proposals are likely to be tossed aside if and when Congress starts its own 2013 appropriations process (as are most White House budget requests), particularly if Congress is weary of increased domestic spending. Given that reality, the president may have to rely on the Department of Education to head up this new STEM charge through programmatic changes to the Teacher Incentive Fund alone.