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OBAMA’S EDUCATION BUDGET MAKES SECONDARY SCHOOLS A PRIORITY: Education Secretary Says a Focus on Middle and High Schools is “Hugely Important to Us”

“For the first time we are focusing a significant portion of money in the Title I program to give state and local officials the resources they need to make changes in the schools that aren’t putting children on the track for academic success.”

Earlier this year, President Obama released a broad outline of his Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education. The three-page document, released on February 26, offered a summary of the president’s educational priorities but contained relatively little in terms of actual dollar figures. On May 7, Obama made it clear that significant reform around the nation’s middle and high schools will be a big issue in 2009 when he made public his detailed funding proposals, which included new investments in adolescent literacy, a high school graduation initiative, and a focus on turning around low-performing middle and high schools.

The president’s most significant proposal for middle and high schools is the $1.5 billion he seeks for Title I School Improvement Grants. Not only does the amount represent an increase of $1 billion over FY 2009, it also requires states to ensure that 40 percent of these funds are spent on improvement activities in middle and high schools. According to an FY 2010 budget summary provided by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the targeting request “reflects the administration’s determination to take immediate action to begin addressing the factors that contribute to the high school dropout crisis in American education.”

In a May 7 conference call with education reportersU.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that Title I is not focused enough on “fundamentally reducing the dropout rate and challenging the status quo and those dropout factors.” He said a priority was making sure that middle and high schools get their “fair share of these desperately needed resources,” adding that “focusing not just on the younger children, but on middle school and high school is hugely important to us.”

“For the first time we are focusing a significant portion of money in the Title I program to give state and local officials the resources they need to make changes in the schools that aren’t putting children on the track for academic success,” Secretary Duncan told reporters. “With $1.5 billion available in this budget and the $3 billion already in the pipeline under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), states and districts will have money to fix schools or shut them down with schools that deliver poor students.”

A chief example of schools that are not serving their students are the nation’s “dropout factories,” the approximately two thousand high schools—identified by Johns Hopkins University researchers—that graduate 60 percent or fewer of each entering ninth-grade class. “These schools enroll an estimated 2.6 million students and account for nearly all of the roughly one million young people who drop out of high school each year,” the budget summary reads. ED believes that one third or more of dropout factories are Title I schools that are “virtually certain” to be identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.

The school improvement funds would help states and school districts expand their capacity to identify and implement effective strategies to turn around dropout factories, as well as elementary and middle schools that have been identified for improvement corrective action, and restructuring. According to the 2007–2008 Consolidated State Performance Reports, the number of schools identified for all stages of improvement grew from 11,511 in the 2007–08 school year to 12,737 in the 2008–09 school year.

The president’s budget also includes an additional $100 million for the “What Works and Innovation Fund,” which would help identify, evaluate, and scale up proven strategies for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps in low-performing schools.

To further curb the dropout crisis, the president’s budget also proposes $370.4 million for the Striving Readers program, which previously focused on improving the skills of adolescents who read below grade level. Under Obama’s proposal, the program would be expanded into a comprehensive literacy program serving children in all grades. Of the total, $300 million would go toward early literacy grants while $70.4 million would be devoted to adolescent literacy grants.  Because poor reading skills affect students’ performance in all subject areas, students who struggle to read at grade level are often at risk of dropping out of school. The $70.4 million request, which would double the funding devoted to adolescent literacy, would fund up to eighty-seven competitive awards for 1) the development, implementation, and testing of research-based reading interventions designed to improve the reading skills of students reading significantly below grade level; and 2) rigorous evaluations of reading interventions being implemented in the nation’s secondary schools including evaluations that use experimental research designs.

President Obama’s budget request also includes $50 million for a new High School Graduation Initiative, a program designed to identify promising practices around dropout prevention. It would provide grants to local educational agencies to support effective, sustainable, and coordinated strategies that would increase high school graduation rates, particularly in dropout factories and the schools that feed into them. Funds would also provide ED with the opportunity to evaluate approaches to dropout prevention and high school completion to determine those most effective and to identify and disseminate information on best practices. ED has indicated that it would focus on using data to identify students who are at risk of dropping out as early as possible as well as identify promising practices to intervene with respect to those students.

“By focusing on higher standards, a comprehensive literacy program, and strategies to turn around low-performing middle and high schools—including the nation’s ‘dropout factories’—the president made clear that the nation needs all students to be graduating from high school truly ready for college or the modern workforce if it is to get the economy truly back on track,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Such strong presidential emphasis on taking major action on high school reform hopefully will be reflected in an early reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

In total, the president’s budget would provide $46.7 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $1.3 billion over the comparable amount for FY 2009. It proposes to save an estimated $24.3 billion over five years by making all new postsecondary student loans through the Direct Loans program and by restructuring the Perkins Loan program. It would also eliminate funding for twelve programs for a total of $551 million and 702 earmarked projects that total an estimated $196.3 million. Among programs slated for elimination are Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grants ($294.8 million), Even Start ($66.5 million), and the College Access Challenge Grant program. Of the twelve programs Obama would eliminate, eight were unsuccessfully targeted for elimination by President George W. Bush.

“This budget makes tough decisions, investing in the programs that will deliver results in student learning while ending ones that aren’t working,” said Secretary Duncan. “It will give educators the resources they need to turn around the schools in the most trouble and it will build a foundation for success in school for our youngest citizens.”

For Title I, the president’s budget would provide $13 billion, a decrease of $1.49 billion. The cut to Title I has drawn criticism from some education groups, but ED made it clear that the FY 2010 budget was meant to build upon the investments made in ARRA, which provides $98.2 billion in funding for ED over the next two years, including $10 billion for Title I.

Comparable Department of Education Appropriations (Billions of Dollars)

 FY 2008  FY 2009  FY 2010 (proposed)
 Discretionary (Without Pell Grants)  $45.0  $45.4  $46.7
 Pell Grants (Mandatory only in 2010)  $14.2  $25.4  $28.7
 ARRA Funds (Non-Pell Discretionary)  N/A  $81.1  N/A
 Other Mandatory  $8.1  ($11.4)  ($16.9)
 Total  $67.4  $140.5  $58.5

More information on the president’s budget proposal is available at

A table of funding levels for programs benefiting middle and high schools is available at

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