Federal Budget Proposal Includes ‘Race to the Top’ for Colleges

As part of the new federal budget proposal the Obama Administration submitted to Congress, pre-K programs as well as high school improvement plans would get a big funding boost — but the proposal also calls for something similar to Race to the Top grants that would award programs that propose innovative reform measures for higher education.

The budget calls for a substantial funding boost for the U.S. Department of Education, with nearly $72 billion out of a total federal budget for nearly $4 trillion. Disregarding sequestration, this would represent a nearly 5% increase over the budget for the fiscal year 2012.

As announced in the State of the Union Address, the president is seeking $75 billion over the next 10 years for a major expansion of preschool programs for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. The program would be paid for through a new tax on tobacco products of 94 cents bringing the total federal tax to nearly $2 per pack. The initiative also would include a $750 million investment in preschool development grants to help states expand access to such services and improve program quality.

“This would constitute the largest expansion of educational opportunity in the 21st century,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in an afternoon press call.

Although the federal government will cover up to 90% of the expense for the first year, its contribution is slated to decline gradually to about a quarter of the total cost. In order to participate, states would have to meet a number of criteria to be eligible for the program — something that the administration expects will limit participation in the first year.

The grant money could be used to expand pre-K programs targeted at low-income families as well as to offer similar programs to children from the middle class.

The entire price-tag of the program would be paid for using the tobacco tax, and the industry is not particularly happy about it. David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA Inc., said in email that tobacco taxes soared by 158 percent four years ago, making another tax difficult to weather. And he added, “We think it is patently unfair to single out adult tobacco consumers with another federal tobacco tax increase to pay for a broad, new government spending program claimed to have benefits for everyone.”

The recent findings regarding discipline programs must have played a part in the budget design as $50 million of the total allocated to the DOE is to go towards the School Climate Transformation Grants to fund programs that will reduce bullying as well as handle chronic discipline and behavior problems among students.