STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is an issue that figures prominently in federal education policy conversations. While interest in the issue arguably dates back to the launch of Sputnik and the resulting call for more and better education in the sciences, over the last decade, countless reports and bills have addressed STEM education issues in the US. To date, the 113th Congress has considered how STEM education programs and efforts might be improved through a number of policy initiatives, as well as spending debates. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a vehicle for discussing the issues, along with immigration policy, consideration of the FY 2014 federal budget and a proposal from the White House to completely reorganize federal STEM education investments. In addition, as President Barack Obama continues to call for an education system that supports his vision for the future, STEM education has been the focus of several high-profile Administration efforts, conversations among policymakers, agency initiatives and legislative proposals.
STEM EDUCATION AND ESEA
ESEA was considered in the 112th and 113th Congresses, those guiding the reauthorization process in the Senate wanted to address STEM education as part of their comprehensive proposal to rewrite the law. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced legislation that proposed revising current law’s Math Science Partnership program to require states to develop a plan around improving STEM education when applying for federal funds to recruit, support, evaluate, and train STEM teachers; develop and improve high-quality STEM curricula and instructional supports to improve student achievement in those subjects; and integrate STEM instruction with instructions in reading, English language arts, or other academic subjects. The proposal was incorporated into the draft reauthorization package in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee marked up and approved in 2011. A slightly different version was included in the bill approved by the Senate Committee in 2013.
The House’s approach to reauthorization of ESEA in the 112th and 113th Congresses reflects that chamber’s membership. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) has been unapologetic about his intentions to remove current law’s accountability provisions and essentially block grant federal funds to states and allow them to use them as they wish. STEM education advocates find this approach frustrating, since they would like the law to require some focus on the disciplines they argue are crucial to workforce needs and the economic success of the country. When Chairman Kline unveiled his proposals to revise ESEA, the only bright spot for STEM education advocates was the retention of science testing in HR 5, the Student Success Act, which was approved by the House earlier this year. STEM education advocates argued that the proposal’s dismissal of STEM education does not match the emphasis that Congress, the White House, governors and others placed on the issue.
Members of Congress have introduced dozens of bills that address STEM education. There are tax incentives for those who choose to pursue postsecondary studies in the fields, loan forgiveness for STEM teachers who teach in certain schools, bills that aim to improve teaching in learning in discrete subjects and others that support efforts to inspire young people to aim for careers in STEM. It is highly unlikely any of these bills will be considered outside of the ESEA reauthorization process.
STEM EDUCATION AND IMMIGRATION REFORM
Conversations around immigration policy and the workforce needs of the country’s technology industries also touch on needed improvements in STEM education. Industry argues that since the US cannot provide the highly skilled individuals needed, they should reform immigration policies that make it easier for companies to get foreign talent here. Changes to the country’s H-1B visa program—that would take the fees corporations pay for those visas and direct the funds to improving STEM education—were included in a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate. There have been several coalitions loudly supporting this approach to addressing the long term problem—the need to improve this country’s STEM education infrastructure—with the short term fix—the fees collected to get more foreign talent here to do jobs that can’t be filled now. Currently, the House bill on immigration does not include the so-called “STEM Fund”, but advocates are working hard to get it included.
REORGANIZING STEM EDUCATION PROGRAMS
The FY 2014 budget and appropriations process have become the vehicle for the Administration to pursue its plans to totally reorganize federal investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs. President Obama’s FY 2014 budget request, which was released in April, proposed a major restructuring of the federal government’s investments in STEM education that would affect many federal agencies. Essentially, the plan would consolidate the federal STEM education program into efforts at three agencies—the Department of Education (ED), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Smithsonian Institution, while increasing overall funding by 6 percent, to $3 billion. The plan has drawn negative reactions from many in the STEM education community. Supporters of popular programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration feel particularly slighted by the plan.
Under the reorganization, the number of all STEM education programs would go from 226 to 110. On Capitol Hill, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren told the Senate Budget Committee in May, “These disciplined choices to reorganize and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases, allow for easier coordination, and improve opportunities for rigorous evaluation of the remaining programs.” Dr. Holdren and others have not been very persuasive.
The Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a spending bill for programs at the Department of Commerce, the Justice Department and the science agencies—the “CJS” spending bill. In the conversations on the Hill and in the STEM education community, leading up to that action, it became clear that the White House has not been convincing in efforts to suggest that federal STEM education programs should live at ED, NSF and the Smithsonian. In addition, the community felt they were not adequately consulted in the development of the new plan, and told Capitol Hill as much.
The Senate Appropriations Committee essentially rejected the White House plan in their report that accompanied $52 billion in spending recommendations for FY 2014, saying, in part, that the panel “has concerns that the proposal has not been thoroughly vetted with the education community or congressional authorizing committees and lacks thorough guidance and input from Federal agencies affected by the proposal.” The Committee questioned both the basis for the reshuffling and the idea of creating lead agencies, saying, “The administration has yet to provide a viable plan ensuring that the new lead STEM institutions … can support the unique fellowship, training, and outreach programs that are now managed by other agencies. Conversely, what is proposed as a consolidation … is really the elimination of many proven and successful programs with no evaluation on why they were deemed duplicative or ineffective.” Over in the House, the lawmakers drawing up their plan for the same agencies would keep money for STEM education activities at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and reject the realignment of undergraduate STEM education programs at NSF. They said, in part, “The committee supports the concept of improving efficiency and effectiveness, through streamlining and better coordination, but does not believe that this particular restructuring proposal achieves that goal…the ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community.”
STEM EDUCATION AND THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
After President Obama’s election, STEM education advocates hoped his campaign rhetoric around issues important to them would translate into action, and they were heartened by a well-known speech he made at the National Academies of Sciences in 2009. In his remarks that day, the President outlined a commitment to research and science education that many felt had been absent from the previous Administration. The subsequent Educate to Innovate initiative, which is “a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in STEM,” according to the White House, is largely a public relations and coordination campaign that publicizes corporate and public investments in STEM education and conveys the national need for a workforce skilled in the sciences and technology. Educate to Innovate spurred the creation of the corporate-led Change the Equation organization; the first “National Lab Day”; and the National Science and Engineering Festival.
While there have not been new federal STEM education programs or investments in recent years, the issue has been given priority status in other high-profile education programs. STEM education figured prominently in the Administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which was enacted and funded by the large stimulus spending bill. STEM education was the only “competitive priority” that was part of the $4 billion competition, wherein states were encouraged to develop a comprehensive strategy to improve achievement in STEM subjects, partner with local institutions and broaden participation of women and underrepresented minorities. Winning states, which are now implementing their plans, are embedding improvements in STEM education into their overall educational reform plans. A similar emphasis on STEM education exists in the “Investing in Innovation” (i3) program, also initially funded by stimulus dollars.
STEM education advocates are conveying their priorities with lawmakers and Administration officials as the education community continues to churn around the fits and starts that characterize progress on reauthorizing ESEA. Against this backdrop, they also continue to argue that the rhetoric around the need for improved STEM education should be reflected in federal spending priorities, and consequently fight for sufficient investments in the Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnership program and education programs at the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. The immigration debate and the spending decisions that could affect the structure of federal STEM education investments have them busy as well.
Prepared for Triangle Coalition for STEM Education by Della Cronin (email@example.com), Washington Partners, LLC