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Obama's Budget Shuffles STEM Education Deck

The president's 2013 budget for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs at the Department of Education has a very familiar ring to science educators. That's the case because most of his proposals are recycled from unsuccessful requests in years past, although some have been redesigned. He's retained the promise of training 100,000 well-qualified science and math teachers by 2020, and added a second, complementary goal with a workforce component to it, namely, to produce 1 million additional STEM graduates.

The department has requested $150 million for the Effective Teaching and Learning: STEM program. Formerly known as the Mathematics and Science Partnership (MSP), it has used a formula based on population and income to award block grants to states for improving teacher education in those subjects through a combination of preservice training and professional development for those already in the classroom. Congress gave MSP $150 million in 2012, a decline from $175 million in 2011.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has run a program by the same name for several years. But its version of MSP makes competitive grants to university faculty members who have teamed up with local school districts to improve student learning. NSF sought to lop off $10 million from its MSP program last year, but Congress refused to go along, holding its funding steady at $57 million. This year NSF has requested the same amount.

The biggest change in the renamed MSP program at Education would be to shift to competitive grants. That's something the Administration has tried before, without success. Education officials have argued that competition will improve the quality of the program and strengthen accountability, says Jennifer Cohen, senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

But Jodi Peterson, assistant executive director for legislative and public affairs for the National Science Teachers Association, thinks the change would be a bad idea. By folding MSP into a broader competitive grants program, she says, the same amount of money is now distributed among more programs, and not every state gets a piece. "If there isn't dedicated funding to STEM [at the state level], it's just not going to happen." There are too many other competing needs, Peterson adds. "I don't see this as a win for STEM education at all."

The president has also asked for $75 million to recruit and train 10,000 high-quality STEM teachers over the next 2 years as part of his push for 100,000 STEM teachers. Congress declined to fund his request for that amount last year. The department also wants to replace the TEACH grants, a program that provides loans to undergraduates studying to become teachers in high-need areas, including science and math, with a program called Presidential Teaching Fellows. He's asked for $190 million, up $5 million from his 2012 request that Congress rejected. At the same time, Congress did appropriate $24 million for the TEACH grants in 2012.

Obama also offered a new variation this year on an old theme. Last year his budget requested $90 million to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education (ARPA-ED). It would emulate a model pioneered by the Pentagon after Sputnik and, most recently, embraced by Energy Secretary Steven Chu when he launched ARPA-E, in which the "E" stands for Energy. This year, instead of making it a free-standing program, the Administration has proposed placing ARPA-ED within the $150 million Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, which supports evidence-based ways to improve elementary and secondary education.

"To have [ARPA-ED] under i3 is a totally new idea," says Cohen, who thinks its new home would be a good fit. But she and other education reformers wonder how the program would be implemented, how much money it would get, and whether it would duplicate work supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, the department's research arm.

All of these changes hinge on whether or not Congress is able to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind, which sets policies for the federal role in education. Cohen doubts that will happen before the fall elections, if then. In the meantime, Republicans who control the House of Representatives are unlikely to take kindly to any changes in the Department of Education, including STEM programs. In other words, says Cohen, "this is all, to be honest with you, pie in the sky."