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Capitol Report: May 23, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

A few weeks ago, NCTM and STEM education advocates were grappling with immigration legislation in the Senate, a looming America COMPETES reauthorization, hearings on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the FY 2014 budget request, and legislation to address a July 1 increase in federal student loan interest rates. Since then, immigration legislation has made progress in the House, the House and Senate education committees have announced intentions to act of ESEA reauthorization bills next month, and additional higher education bills have been introduced and debated. No rest for the weary.

While Capitol Hill is keeping advocates busy, NCTM has also been working to discern what the president’s budget request for STEM education might mean. President Obama has outlined a bold new plan for the federal government’s investments in STEM education. The plan comes after years of reports on the disparate programs at just about every federal agency and increased questions about the efficacy of those investments. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been working on a strategic plan for federal investments in STEM education, and although that is expected to be released soon, the budget request certainly gives the community a sense of what to expect.

Fact sheets, budget documents, and conversations with White House and agency staff, indicate that the administration hopes to allocate $3.1 billion for STEM education programs across the federal government in FY 2014. This is an increase of 6.7 percent over current funding levels. Of course, the funds would be spent differently next year under the plan. The budget proposal consolidates or restructures 114 of the 226 existing federal STEM programs; 78 would be terminated, with funds of $176 million redirected to other agencies . The Department of Defense would lose 6 programs; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 38; and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 9. The Department of Energy would have 8 fewer programs; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 6; and other agencies would also see some of their programs go away. Forty-nine programs would also be consolidated within agencies. In addition to all of this reorganization, 13 new programs have been proposed. Of the $176 million in funds from the 78 terminated programs, $100.3 million would be moved to K–12 STEM education programing at the Department of Education, $25 million would go to the Smithsonian for a new STEM engagement initiative, and $51.1 million would be moved to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for STEM undergraduate education and fellowship programs.

Although the details of the eliminations, consolidation, and new initiatives have yet to be defined, the administration appears to want K–12 programs to be within the Department of Education. NSF would be home for undergraduate and graduate fellowships and research, and the Smithsonian would be the repository of resources and leader on informal education initiatives. At NSF, the Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) program would become a new initiative called Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education (CAUSE). This new $123.08 million program would be a comprehensive agencywide program for FY 2014 that aims to maximize the impact of NSF’s considerable ongoing investments in STEM undergraduate education. CAUSE would be designed to improve STEM learning and learning environments, broaden participation in STEM and increase institutional capacity, and build the STEM workforce of tomorrow.

At the Department of Education, the administration has once again proposed folding the current Math Science Partnership program into a new program—Effective Teaching and Learning: STEM. The new program would fund partnerships between local education agencies (LEAs) and institutions of higher education (IHEs) to help states improve teaching and learning in STEM. Funds would support state implementation of comprehensive, evidence-based plans, professional development, and local resources to promote high-quality STEM instruction. Although the administration has tried to implement this redesign in past years through the appropriations process, these efforts have been unsuccessful, owing in part to resistance from NCTM and others in the STEM education community. The budget proposal notes intentions to work toward this change again, stating, “If Congress does not reauthorize ESEA prior to enactment of fiscal year 2014 appropriations, the administration will request authority through appropriations language to improve the awarding and use of subgrants under Mathematics and Science Partnerships (while retaining the program’s formula grant structure) to align with the evidence-based STEM Innovation Networks proposal.” The STEM Innovation Networks proposal is a new $150 million program that would support networks similar to the state STEM initiatives, such as the California STEM Learning Network, Washington STEM, and the Ohio STEM Learning Network.

The newest agency to become a player on the STEM education policy scene—the Smithsonian Institution—would be asked to work with agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), NIH, and other science partners to “harness their unique expertise and resources to create relevant materials and curricula, on-line resources, and effective delivery and dissemination mechanisms to reach more teachers and students both inside and outside the classroom.”

Although the administration is pushing hard for these changes, the STEM education community and NCTM have many questions about implementation and resources. The community appreciates the attention being paid to STEM education and the effort to respond to criticisms that federal investments in STEM education are diffused and ineffective, but as is always the case with policy, the details will be very important as these changes evolve.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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