House panel is generous to new federal STEM program

Girl Scouts from Oklahoma try out Google Glass during the 2014 White House Science Fair.

A. Gemignani/NASA

House panel is generous to new federal STEM program

The prospects for federal support of science in schools across the United States took a turn for the better this week as a key congressional panel weighed in on the annual budget process.

At issue is the fate of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG). It’s part of the 2015 law governing elementary and secondary education that replaced the long-reviled No Child Left Behind Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act authorizes the SSAEG program at $1.65 billion, with the money to be distributed to each state through block grants. But last month the Senate appropriations panel allocated only $300 million, less than 20% of the enacted level and $200 million below what the Obama administration had requested in its 2017 budget request to Congress. 

Yesterday, the equivalent subpanel in the House of Representatives approved a spending bill covering the Department of Education and several other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. And House appropriators were much more generous to SSAEG, allocating it $1 billion.

“One of the things we’ve learned is to not get too high at the highs and low at the lows,” says Doug Paulson, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education in West Roseville, which now receives roughly $1.5 million each year for a range of programs to help STEM teachers in up to 40 high-needs schools across the state. “Certainly this is a much closer number than we previously had from the administration and from the Senate, so from that standpoint it certainly is encouraging. But we’ll continue to monitor [the situation].”

“With this appropriation, thousands of schools districts across the country would—for the first time—have access to new federal resources for activities like science, technology, engineering, and math competitions, hands-on and field-based learning, and bringing high-quality STEM courses—including computer science—to high-need schools,” said a statement from James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

The SSAEG grants are supposed to provide students with a more well-rounded education, improve school conditions, and bring technology into the classroom. School districts can apply for the funds after qualifying for the program based on their student poverty rate and population. Educators say the $1 billion funding level, if ultimately adopted by Congress, should ease the competition among worthy proposals in the many areas supported by the grants.