How Does Obama’s Education Budget Stack Up Against US Citizens’ Priorities?

While the president's proposal is a step in the right direction toward reflecting Americans' priorities, some obvious pieces are missing. (Photo: President Obama via Shutterstock)While the president’s proposal is a step in the right direction toward reflecting US citizens’ priorities, some obvious pieces are missing. (Photo: Daniel Lohmer / Shutterstock.com) President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal included many education initiatives that would be popular among the US population. But is 2 percent of the total federal budget pie enough?

In early February, President Obama released his seventh annual budget proposal, requesting $4.1 trillion in total federal spending for fiscal year 2016. And though the proposal is just a starting point for lengthy budget negotiations in the Republican-controlled Congress, the president’s request is still important.

First, it showcases his vision for the country in 2016 and in the years to come. Second, it serves as a benchmark against which all future spending legislation will be measured. Finally, it is the only budget proposal that reflects input and spending requests from each federal agency, including the Department of Education.

While the president’s proposal is a step in the right direction toward reflecting Americans’ priorities, some obvious pieces are missing. For example, just 2 percent of the total federal budget, a very tiny sliver of the total budget pie, will go toward federal education programs in 2016.

America’s College Promise: Two Free Years of Community College

More than 40 percent of college students attend a community college for their entire college career or before moving onto a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. And at a time when more than 7 in 10 college seniors graduate with student loan debt averaging nearly $30,000, a proposal to help make college more affordable is long overdue.

The president’s 2016 budget proposal includes a new federal-state initiative that would allow students to attend community college tuition-free for up to two years. The federal government would pay $60 billion over 10 years, while states would pitch in an additional $15 billion over the same time period. The proposal could save as many as 9 million full-time community college students an average of $3,800 per year.

A recent Washington Post and ABC News poll found that 53 percent of Americans are in support of the president’s proposal to provide two free years of community college.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

A Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup poll finds that 91 percent of Americans believe a college education is important, and other polling shows 62 percent of Americans think public college costs are unaffordable.

The president’s 2016 budget invests in the American Opportunity Tax Credit by making more students eligible. The credit helps students pay for up to $2,500 per year in college expenses. The president proposes that the expansion be paid for by proposed changes to the capital gains tax (taxes on income from investments such as stocks and real estate) and by imposing new fees on financial institutions that engage in risky “excessive borrowing.”

The president has proposed this and other tax reform measures that would increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations to provide much-needed tax breaks to low- and middle-class families. Polling indicates that the public would support these changes as Americans think the wealthy and corporations should pay more. However, these proposals do face opposition by some lawmakers in Congress. According to Representative Paul Ryan, increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations would hurt investments and jobs.

Early Education Programs: Preschool for All and Head Start

Fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program in the nation, despite the fact that quality early education has been shown to have lasting positive effects on education and even on income and health later in life. As in previous years, the president’s budget proposal again calls for $66 billion in federal spending for the president’s signature Preschool for All initiative, a federal-state, cost-sharing initiative that would ensure children in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line would be able to attend a high-quality preschool program for free.

The president’s budget also requests an additional $1.5 billion investment in the Head Start program over the 2015 spending level. Among other investments, this new funding would expand the existing home-visiting program, where educators in the Head Start program visit with families to assess development and instructional needs of young children in the program, ensuring progress in early learning and development.

Both Preschool for All and the additional Head Start investments would be paid for by raising an additional $95 billion over 10 years by increasing the tobacco tax. Closing the gaps in “school readiness” that have long separated children by race, ethnicity and income through these investments should go a long way toward ensuring that all children begin school ready to learn, on a more level playing field.

A recent Gallup poll found that 7 in 10 Americans favor using federal money to ensure every child in the country has access to high-quality preschool programs.

K-12 Investments

A Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup poll finds that Americans think public schools’ biggest problem is a lack of financial support, and studies have shown disturbing patterns of lower per-pupil spending in schools that serve predominately students of color. However, while Americans agree they want to invest more in public schools, there isn’t agreement on how that money should be spent. For example, one poll finds that Americans are split on whether to use new education funding to reduce class sizes, increase teacher salaries, or invest in new books and technologies.

The president’s proposal seeks to provide certain schools with additional funding. For example, the Title I program was established to provide financial assistance to schools that have a high percentage of children from low-income families to ensure all children meet state academic standards. The president’s budget requests $1 billion in new funding for the program to implement new college- and career-ready standards, close achievement gaps, and turn around low-performing schools, and it invests funds in special education students and English language learners.

In addition, to attract and retain more high-quality teachers, the president requests $4 billion for teacher training and recruitment programs.

How Does Obama Stack Up?

According to polling, 57 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the quality of public education in the nation and 67 percent say that improving the education system should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2016. And the facts support this view: In 1995, the United States was second in the world in the rate of college graduations, but has since fallen to 12th.

So although the president’s proposal includes popular education initiatives promoting access to education and is a good starting point for Congress to continue negotiations, 2 percent is far too small a slice of the federal budget pie, especially considering how important Americans say education is.

Next month, the House and Senate Budget Committee budget proposals, as well as one from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will be released, adding more fuel to the debate on education and other federal spending programs. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the budget enacted by Congress for 2016 will narrow the gap between the priority Americans place on investing in education and the government’s actual budget expenditures.