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STEM educators fear spending bill undermines goal of new U.S. law

Tampa, Florida, science teachers learn how to model the creation of the universe for their students.

Kyle McDonald, Strawbridge Studios

STEM educators fear spending bill undermines goal of new U.S. law

A federal grant has helped 500 teachers in Tampa, Florida, discover new ways to teach science at every grade level. The knowledge they’ve gained over the past 3 years has translated into 24 new lessons and a curriculum that includes hands-on strategies such as engineering design challenges.

But the fate of that and dozens of other federally funded programs to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools is up in the air following the first move by Congress to fund a new education law that reshuffles money allocated for STEM activities. A 2017 spending bill approved earlier this month by the Senate appropriations committee falls well short of what STEM educators had expected, setting off a potentially zero-sum game between science and other parts of the curriculum.

Last year Congress replaced the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, reviled for its emphasis on annual testing, with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new blueprint for federal oversight of public education wiped out the $153-million-a-year Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program that had funded the training of Tampa-area teachers, along with three smaller accounts to support physical education, school counseling, and advanced placement courses. Those activities must now compete for money in a new account, called Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. The block grants are designed to give local educators greater flexibility to tailor programs that meet the needs of their districts, according to federal lawmakers, while keeping STEM education a high priority. And to sweeten the pot, Congress authorized $1.65 billion for the grants, some six times the combined amount earmarked for the four programs under the old law.

“Everyone who was involved had to give a little to get a little,” said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in Arlington, Virginia. “Losing the MSP program was a real loss—I won’t pretend that that is something that we were willing to put on the chopping block easily. [But] given the authorized value of the bill, we were very hopeful that with the addition of the STEM language and the attention that it specifically called to those programs, the loss of the MSP would be something we could sustain.”

But instead of the $1.65 billion the lawmakers authorized for the new grants, Senate appropriators this month allocated just $300 million. Although the total is $22 million higher than current levels for the four combined programs, it is lower than what they received from 2005 through 2010. (The amount has fluctuated in recent years, with a low of $222 million during the 2013 sequester.) The full Senate has yet to act on the spending bill, and the House of Representatives has not begun debating its version, but House legislators are not expected to be any more generous than their Senate counterparts.

The reduced funding has turned the increased local flexibility into a potentially catastrophic situation, says Larry Plank, director of K–12 STEM education for the Hillsborough County School District, which includes Tampa. Its $4.5 million MSP grant application won out over other STEM proposals from districts across the state. And although Plank couldn’t count on always being successful, he was at least guaranteed a chance to compete.

Not any longer. “Perhaps [states] will maintain a significant level of funding for STEM or perhaps they won’t,” he says. “With MSP, we knew that [some] funding would be available for those types of things.”   

Under ESSA, school districts are required to spend at least 20% of their grants on each of two areas—providing students with a well-rounded education, and ensuring a safe and healthy environment. Another unspecified portion of the award must expand the use of technology to improve instruction. The money will be given out as block grants based on the overall size of the school district and the proportion of impoverished students it serves. Districts that receive less than $30,000 don’t have to do a needs assessment and are exempt from the allocations in the law.

With everything a possible priority, Evans says, the money won’t go very far—and the students could lose out. “[The funding level] is likely to engender more competition between subjects rather than what could have been an opportunity for collaboration that would really benefit the kids,” he said. The low appropriation from the Senate, he adds, leaves the bill “rather hollow.”

Innovation could also fall by the wayside. “My biggest fear is that, with the language and the minimal appropriations, there is a risk that our country loses the ability to test new ways to teach kids science and engineering,” Plank says. That’s true for all fields, says Myrna Mandlawitz, director of government relations for the School Social Work Association of America based in London, Kentucky. She says that many school districts used the nearly $50 million allocated to school counseling under NCLB as seed money to hire their first social worker, psychologist, or counselor, who then demonstrated their value to students. But she worries that grants to individual districts under the new law may be too small to finance such positions.

The shift in power is forcing states and national groups like NSTA to work on a local level to guide STEM programs. Plank says that his district, the eighth largest in the country with 211,000 students, has plenty of experience assessing needs and deciding how to allocate for STEM programs. But he worries that smaller districts may receive little guidance from their state and, given sparse funds, decide not to make STEM a priority.

“We all know that art programs and music programs don’t receive enough funding,” he says. “Some districts may see this as an opportunity to fund programs that have been severely underfunded for many years. I would never be the person to say that art isn’t important, that [physical education] isn’t important, that civics isn’t important. But when you lump all of that together with STEM and you underfund the entire portfolio, it’s a recipe for disaster.”