Last Word on STEM Budget Better than the First

Eric Iversen

Congress exercised its power of the purse this year by almost completely rejecting the White House budget plans. R&D came out well, STEM education so-so.

Congress exercised its power of the purse this year by almost completely rejecting the White House budget plans. R&D came out well, STEM education so-so.

Two cheers for STEM funding

The paths to final spending levels for STEM education and research in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 omnibus spending bill ended up leading to different places: could-have-been-worse for education, pretty darn good for research.

When we last checked on the budget outlook a few weeks ago, things looked grim across the board. Federally funded research programs faced “seismic disruption,” with NASA, NIH, and EPA all lined up for double-digit reductions. On the education side, teacher professional development, afterschool programs, and NASA’s Office of Education all faced threats to their very existence, along with “just” large cuts to various other STEM-related activities.

An atomized process

In the end, much less than “seismic” effects ended up being felt. For better or for worse, authority for making actual spending decisions is widely distributed across the federal government. Dozens of committees and subcommittees in Congress make small-bore, program-level decisions about how much money goes to which departments and agencies.

In a year like this one, with most individual appropriations bills abandoned, legislators throw all the numbers together in one big spending bill called an omnibus. It adds up to a haphazardly assembled “plan” for how the federal government spends our money. It’s not called sausage-making for nothing, but this year, for STEM, that was good.

A “normal” outcome

For the remaining five months of FY2017, Congress has returned a budget of dimensions similar to recent years. Overall, it outlines $1.07 trillion, in annualized amounts, in discretionary spending, and it was signed into law late last week.

Research overachieves

Some research programs get notable increases, such as Defense and NIH research, and most others get smaller increases. Overall, federal spending on research and development rises five percent over FY2016 levels to $155.8 billion.

This chart comes for AAAS’s superb budget and policy analysis program. Their freely available information provides data and understanding indispensable to the work of science policy advocates across the country.

This chart comes for AAAS’s superb budget and policy analysis program. Their freely available information provides data and understanding indispensable to the work of science policy advocates across the country.

This increase is meaningful, relative to the budget as a whole. At 0.81 percent of GDP, research spending is growing. And in a fiscal environment still governed by mandated caps on discretionary spending, an increase of this size marks strong support from legislators for spending on R&D.

Education achieves …

STEM education programs came out of budget negotiations bruised but unbowed.

Here it gets tricky

The funding environment for formal STEM education programs at the Department of Education is more convoluted. Most of the money for STEM education comes from Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG), located in Title IV of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This program works as a block grant to states for funding activities meant to provide students with a “well-rounded” education.

The term “well-rounded education” appears 24 times in the Every Student Succeeds Act, and money to support related activities comes from SSAEG disbursements.

The term “well-rounded education” appears 24 times in the Every Student Succeeds Act, and money to support related activities comes from SSAEG disbursements.

Elements of such an education could include foreign languages, the arts, civics, and other areas. Title IV also provides funding for STEM education and educational technology purchases, as well as student health and safety efforts.

Less to work with

SSAEG was authorized at $1.6 billion in ESSA, with funding to be distributed by formula to all school districts in the country. The omnibus funds SSAEG at only $400 million. Moreover, the funding mechanism could, at a state’s discretion, be competitive grant-making rather than a formula for widespread dissemination.

The threat of portability

Even more confusing, Title IV funds are fungible. States can repurpose the funds for use by low-income school districts (Title I) or teacher professional development and class-size reduction (Title II). Given the over-12-percent cut to Title II funds in the budget – especially distressing to K-12 administrators – this option could well prove appealing to states.*

Other suboptimal features of the budget deal include elimination of both the department’s program to build a STEM Master Teachers Corp and the Obama initiative, Computer Science for All. However, computer science may be part of a “well-rounded” education, so some level of support for this area is theoretically still available under general Title IV funding. Scroll down to page 112 of the actual budget tables to see the specific figures.

The other hand giveth

In mid-April, meanwhile, the Department of Education signaled some meaningful interest in STEM education. It released an actually quite useful document offering guidance to state and local education agencies in how to make use of funds available for STEM education in ESSA as well as in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins). It calls out specific examples of activities for which funding is available:

  • Increasing students’ access to STEM learning programs
  • Supporting educators’ knowledge and expertise in STEM
  • Providing materials and resources for STEM education

Uncertain prospects ahead

Between the changes just starting to roll out with ESSA and this amorphous budgetary landscape, getting a fix on the status of STEM relative to other funding priorities is next to impossible. Moreover, given the disaggregated nature of funding decisions that shape the federal budget, the answer to this question will depend mostly on how adept STEM education supporters in Congress are at winning local arguments among advocates for both education and other areas over where federal dollars should go. As with most issues to do with budgets, it means making hard choices for allocating scarce resources.

STEM education funding will rise or fall, then, according to people’s willingness to make the case in its favor. Here’s how to contact your local elected officials.

Please feel free to share with interested friends or colleagues. STEM education funding prospects are only as strong as we’re willing to make them.

*Many thanks to the inestimable Patti Curtis, Director of the National Center for Technological Literacy, for her generous, invaluable help making sense of the funding circumstances surrounding SSAEG this year.


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: Figure 1: S&T Agency Funding, courtesy of AAAS and the awesome @MattHourihan; “Well-rounded education,” courtesy of National Education Association.