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Budgeting for STEM Excellence
By Hemingway Posted:February 2, 2014 1 Comments
The United States federal budget was finalized and voted in by Congress in January. It easily passed both houses, and President Obama quickly signed the bill into law. This $1.1 trillion bill effectively governs how the United States government will fund itself and its activities until September of this year. And while much of the conversation is perennially focused around big ticket items like defense spending, healthcare, and entitlements, this budget also determines the amount of money that the government will spend in developing STEM education around the country.

Over the last few months, there has been an increase in the number of politicians who have recognized the importance of STEM education and have called for an expanding of programs and efforts to meet the requirements for STEM excellence. Indeed, a White House summit was held with over 140 college and university presidents to discuss how better STEM pipelines could be created from K-12 education through universities that ultimately place students in the STEM workforce. But, as with all things, talk can be cheap. One measure of how invested policymakers are with STEM education is to see how they appropriated money in this area.

The money appropriated for STEM education in the current budget will come out of the $71.2 billion that the Department of Education received. Of course, the vast majority of this will not go into STEM education because the Department of Education has many initiatives that require funding. Money specifically earmarked for STEM education comes in under four different line items: Mathematics and Science Partnerships; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [STEM] Innovation; Fund for the Improvement of Education (FIE); and Minority Science and Education Improvement.

Two of these items were funded at level funding, keeping funding steady year over year. This included the $149.4 million appropriated for Mathematics and Science Partnerships and the $9.5 million appropriated for the Minority Science and Education Improvement. Notes from the Senate regarding the funding levels called for the Math and Science Partnerships to "seek to improve the performance of students by bringing math and science teachers" into partnerships in at-risk areas with area STEM workers. The Minority Science and Education Improvement allows the Department of Education to give grants to institutions with enrollment with a majority-minority student body to develop curricula, train faculty, and purchase needed equipment with encouragement for these funds to be used in the STEM subjects. Level funding indicates a level of agreement, but it does not show a push for increased benefits over time.

The other two sections, the STEM Innovation and FIE, tell a different story. The Obama administration had requested $46.3 million for FIE and the development of a STEM Innovation program that called for $417.7 million in new STEM education money. In contrast, the appropriations bill passed by Congress zeroed out the STEM Innovation project, effectively stalling creation and implementation of the innovation networks, teacher pathways, master teacher corps, and the Effective Teaching and Learning STEM program that would have been created for implementation in K-12 schools. On the other hand, Congress did appropriate $137.6 million for FIE. The Senate report stated that the funds were to be used to transform STEM teaching and learning with a focus on targeting at-risk and under-represented populations for STEM success, with a focus on priming students for interest in STEM at younger ages.

Now, that's just a small portion of the budget, and it's already a lot of numbers that can be hard to keep track of. What does it all boil down to? In short, in every existing line item in the budget that affects STEM education, Congress kept funding level or increased funding. However, they removed over $400 million in new STEM education funding that would have directly targeted STEM education inside classrooms.

There are approximately 61.2 million school-aged children in the United States. By removing this extra money for STEM education excellence, the appropriations bill effectively states that the STEM education goals that so many experts from business, education, and government agree are decidedly vital is not worth an extra $7 per student each year. Or put another way, an expanding of STEM education efforts are not worth the price of a fast food value meal for each student.

There are of course many worthy causes that need to be funded, and there are a finite number of resources that the United States has to devote to the many issues that confront it on a day-to-day basis. However, if policymakers are legitimately interested in meeting the demands of comprehensive STEM education reform head-on, it has to accept that these changes and that these goals will cost more money than is currently being offered.
  • Adequate teacher training costs money.
  • Fully engaging students with experiments and hands-on learning costs money.
  • Building new STEM magnets to foster student engagement in middle and high school costs money.
  • Developing outreach efforts to make sure that minorities and women do not continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce costs money.
  • STEM excellence, in other words, costs money.
And it costs more than is currently available.

In many areas, nonprofits, businesses, state and local governments, and other groups are taking up some of the slack by providing excellent support for STEM education. However, this can lead to uneven results that risk leaving significant portions of the country behind. So while it is a good thing that the President has hosted recent summits around STEM education and that the House of Representatives recently committee hearings about STEM successes around the country, more needs to be done. This starts with making sure that every person interested in the future of the STEM fields in America knows about the funding levels that Congress has offered for this year. And then it calls on those people to contact their legislators to let them know that more money is needed to make sure that the STEM worker gap never becomes a reality and that every student is primed and ready for excellence, no matter the cost.