Obama's Budget Calls For More Education Spending

At a time when Republicans are calling for big cuts in government spending, President Obama's proposed budget calls for a $2 billion increase in education spending. Obama says education is an important investment, but his proposal is likely to meet sharp resistance in Congress.

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It was no coincidence that the president unveiled his budget at a middle school outside Baltimore, Maryland. His message to Congress was: don't touch education. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: President Obama wants to spend $77.4 billion on education - $2 billion more than last year.

President BARACK OBAMA: Education is an investment that we need to win the future, just like innovation is an investment that we need to win the future, just like infrastructure is an investment that we need to win the future.

SANCHEZ: Here's how the president's education budget breaks down: About a third of the money - $26.8 billion - is for elementary and secondary education, an increase of 6.9 percent; Title I, a program that targets low-income schoolchildren, gets a $300 million increase; while special education gets a $200 million boost.

Funding for these programs had everybody holding their breath, says Gene Wilhoit, a former social studies teacher who now heads the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Mr. GENE WILHOIT (Council of Chief State School Officers): We went into this assuming that this was going to be a tight budget. So it was nice to see that there was an increase for education. Slight as it might be, it still was an increase in these very difficult times, and we understand that.

SANCHEZ: Wilhoit says state and local school officials should also be grateful that the president is not abandoning his push for innovation and tough school reforms. Race to the Top, for example, would get another $900 million in this budget, except this time school districts, not states, would compete for the money.

Mr. WILHOIT: Putting some competition into the federal programs is a good idea.

SANCHEZ: As long as that competition doesn't take money away from special education and programs for low-income students, says Wilhoit.

The president's budget includes dozens of smaller programs totaling billions of dollars in competitive grants for expanding preschool, training teachers, shutting down failing schools and helping low-income minority kids make it into and out of college.

With more unemployed people applying for federal financial aid to go to college, though, the administration had to shift $10 billion to shore up funding for Pell grants, the single biggest source of free federal aid for low-income college students. The maximum Pell grant right now is $5,500, but the demand for these grants is rising so fast, the program faces a $20 billion shortfall.

Republicans in Congress, though, are in no mood to negotiate any increase - no matter how tiny - to protect any program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the administration is willing to do more with less. Duncan says he wants to work with Republicans on ways to cut spending.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): But we have to make sure that we're putting our children and our country in a place to be more successful in the future. And cuts that take us in the wrong direction don't help us get there.

SANCHEZ: Republicans are proposing $5 billion in cuts in education as part of their overall effort to slash government spending and reduce the deficit. So when Duncan goes to Capitol Hill to defend the administration's education budget, he expects to be grilled.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: I'm looking here at a photo of a stack of budget books from the White House. You don't have to read it all yourself because we've done it for you. You can find the analysis of our beat reporters in different areas of the federal budget at NPR.org.

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