President Barack Obama released his 2012 Department of Education budget this week and both the American Federation of Teachers and the United States Student Association support it as a sign of the administration's commitment to public schools and higher education.
Both groups applaud Obama's dedication to preserve the maximum Pell Grant amount, despite the political challenges of doing so, as well as the protection of other education programs.
However, USSA strongly opposes the continuing resolution released by House Republicans, which student activists say is shortsighted because it includes drastic cuts in fundamental federal student aid programs. Those include the Pell Grant, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant and funding for minority-serving institutions, tribal colleges and AmeriCorps.
Under Obama's budget, the maximum Pell Grant would be set at $5,550 with infused funds from other parts of the program receiving cuts. House Republicans want to reduce the maximum Pell Grant by $845. USSA notes that this total equals a year's worth of textbooks or transportation costs. Over 9 million low-income students use the Pell Grant each year to stay in college.
Obama's budget includes cuts that would end Pell Grants for summer students and end interest subsidies on graduate students' loans. Administration officials say they're making tough choices to protect the Pell Grant and are cutting where they can so that they can invest where it's most needed.
"If you're drowning, it's important to get your head above water before reaching for the rescue boat; in a similar vein, students recognize the political realities requiring cuts to the Pell Grant in order to save it from deeper reductions," said USSA President Lindsay McCluskey.
"However," she added, "we ultimately want to move beyond just keeping our proverbial heads above water and get to a point where higher education is the ship taking the U.S. to a place of economic and social strength. Political courage shouldn't be required to fund higher education."
But USSA says more needs to be done in order to fully address the structural problems in higher education funding. The student-led group, which represents more than 4.5 million students at over 400 campuses nationwide, recently launched a campus grassroots organizing campaign called "Where's The Funding?" This student rights campaign calls for increased investment in higher education on the local, state and national level and aims to make the Pell Grant a mandatory spending program.
In total, Obama's education proposal asks for $77.4 billion. That includes $48.8 billion for the portion of the education budget that does not include the Pell Grants, or an increase of about 4 percent above the 2010 budget.
In a statement, AFT president Randi Weingarten said Obama's education budget reflects a continuing effort to improve public schools. "A strong economy and a strong public school system are inextricably linked and the president understands that support for education is an investment in our children and the future of our nation," she said.
Weingarten notes the modest proposed increase is part of an overall budget that freezes most discretionary spending, including cuts that will be painful for many Americans at a time when poverty rates are rising and unemployment still remains too high. She added state governors and legislatures nationwide should consider their own budget priorities in light of Obama's plan.
"President Obama's proposal shows that even in a tough economy, our commitment to education is critical," she said.
The administration also seeks to broaden eligibility for Race to the Top grants by driving resources directly to local school districts instead of states.
"In these difficult times, when districts are wrestling with the prospect of cutting art, music and vital services for kids, we must be careful to maintain those priorities," said Weingarten. "Funding determined by competition sometimes allows those districts who can most afford it to have an edge, and that is troubling when all students - particularly disadvantaged children - need help."
As the House continues to lay out its proposal, many of Obama's initiatives could face cuts or elimination. For example Republicans, who are the majority in the House, are proposing to cut $1.1 billion from the Head Start program, which critics say would eliminate services for more than 200,000 children and more than 50,000 jobs.
Photo courtesy USSA.