Questions Surround $200 Million in STEM Education Funding

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Putting the pieces together

A presidential memo came out of the White House last week directing the Department of Education to spend at least $200 million per year on STEM education grants, with an emphasis on computer science education.

In Washington, though, it matters where money comes from and how it fits into the (usually more boring and complicated) larger context of spending. The details here, such as are available, explain why many in STEM education were giving just two cheers for this announcement.

Money from where?

To think properly about the larger context in which the Department of Education is being instructed to spend this money, let's consider where STEM education funding comes from in the agency’s budget.

The most numerous sources of funding for STEM education are found in the following three sections of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and one stand-alone law, with authorized, i.e., maximum, spending levels in parentheses:

Lack of STEM resources hinders low-income students' learning opportunities in many ways.

Lack of STEM resources hinders low-income students' learning opportunities in many ways.

In any detail, the universe of specifically STEM funding opportunities among these four areas is almost impossible to scope out, since the laws allow people to do various things with the money in various ways. It is of course much less than the total of all these figures. However, the Department of Education has issued useful guidance for identifying specific funding programs within these broad areas.

Title I funding is designed to help schools close achievement gaps that correlate to income levels, in STEM education or any other area of study.

Title I funding is designed to help schools close achievement gaps that correlate to income levels, in STEM education or any other area of study.

Within the Department’s overall funding of almost $70 billion, these figures can provide broad parameters for thinking about trade-offs among funding priorities. If one area gets an increase, another gets a decrease, in these times of flat-to-declining levels of spending on education.

What's in focus now

New in 2015, the SSAEG program is so far languishing at low funding levels.

New in 2015, the SSAEG program is so far languishing at low funding levels.

STEM education advocates, via the Title IV-A Coalition, have honed in on funding possibilities under SSAEG, the pot of money devoted to “well-rounded education” programming. Conceived as a block grant for states to distribute among all school districts, the program needs funding at a high level in order to provide meaningful support to grantees.

To make space for SSAE grants in ESSA, Congress consolidated a bunch of stand-alone programs with SSAEG-related purposes (including Math and Science Partnerships at $152 million) and used the money as a down payment on the new program. But funding for the old programs added up only to about $280 million, while SSAEG was thought to need $1.6 billion. Cue the music for a zero-sum, knives-out, to-the-pain fight.

Trouble getting started

For SSAEG this year, Congress appropriated just $400 million. Getting to $1.6 billion, or any meaningfully higher number, would have required taking big chunks out of other parts of the Education budget.

Dangerous flexibility?

For 2017 only, Congress did give states the option of running competitive grant programs, instead of using formula funding to distribute the money. With competitive grants, states would create at least the possibility that winners’ programs would be of sufficient size and impact to demonstrate value for the program. Only seven states have chosen this option, though.

In the rest of the country, the money will amount, in most cases, to pocket change. For grantees, the best feature of the grant money, it turns out, is fungibility. Districts can combine it with numerous other kinds of federal dollars – e.g., Title II teacher professional development money – to flesh out activities related to Title IV goals. But this means that “Title IV-A” money will become largely invisible, detached from specific benefits, and therefore harder to defend, let alone increase, in the future.

Teacher professional development activities might be the accidental beneficiary of low SSAEG funding levels. School districts can transfer grant money to other eligible areas, such as teacher training efforts supported by Title II funds.

Teacher professional development activities might be the accidental beneficiary of low SSAEG funding levels. School districts can transfer grant money to other eligible areas, such as teacher training efforts supported by Title II funds.

Back to where we started

So, what does all of this have to do with understanding the announcement last week about $200 million a year going to STEM education? A few things.

  • Where is the money coming from? If it is carved out of existing non-STEM programs, that means cuts to other areas. If it is money repurposed from other STEM programs, it doesn’t change what is already going to STEM education. In the unlikely event it represents new money, where will it reside? Title II? Title IV-A? IV-B? Nobody seems to know.
  • How much for STEM, and how much for computer science? Under Title IV-A, these two areas are effectively competitors. Explicitly including computer science within STEM education is a relatively recent trend, and the interface, if you will, is far from user-friendly.
  • What can you actually do with $200 million? The Obama administration put a price tag of $4 billion on CSforAll, its proposal to underwrite K-12 computer science education. Tech companies offered up another $300 million over five years to flesh out the current initiative, making it something like $260 million a year, or 6.5 percent of CSforAll.

Questions, questions

Finally, what, if anything, does this effort say about the Trump administration’s larger priorities for education spending? The White House budget request contained $0 for Title II and Title IV, Parts A & B, as part of $9 billion in cuts to the Education Department’s annual appropriation.

Does this memo represent a retreat from this position? If so, great. Or is it a distracting fig leaf, like the president donating his 2nd-quarter salary to help fund a science camp, even as he sought to eliminate, among other things, NASA’s STEM education office?

The statement from the Department of Education itself, whence $200 million of STEM education money is to flow, is instructive: “We look forward to working with the White House and Congress on identifying grant funds to use for this important initiative.” As they say, stay tuned for more as this story develops.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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Credits: Graphic from Change the Equation used by permission and is based on their analysis of federal data sources.