President Barack Obama revealed his budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year on Monday. Although a long and painful budget battle is inevitable, Obama’s plan reveals a solid set of priorities. Most importantly, the budget shows the president and his administration have realized the importance of investing in the future through education. Temporary stimulus bills may ease pain in the short-run, but only forward-looking investments in education, infrastructure and research will set the country on a new path to economic security and equity.
Even Obama’s choice of location for the budget unveiling echoed his professed commitment to increasing federal support for education. From a Virginia community college the president vowed, “We’ve got to make sure that education is affordable and available to everybody who wants to go.” But the numbers speak louder than any lofty rhetoric could.
Education is marked for the largest proportional increase in discretionary spending of any budget item. The plan increases the Education Department’s budget by 2.5 percent, to nearly $70 billion. Much of Obama’s new proposed spending targets community colleges and job training, but promising university programs are also included.
The innovative “Race to the Top: College Affordability and Completion” competition is a plan modeled after the successful K-12 program. It would set up a $1 billion fund to reward colleges that are able to keep tuition costs low and maintain high graduation rates.
Another way in which the plan seeks to keep higher education affordable is through increased financial aid. Obama’s budget maintains maximum Pell Grant awards and prevents a scheduled doubling of interest rates on quickly ballooning student loan debt.
If all these potential gains will weather the storm of debate in Congress will be the story to watch throughout the next few months. Obama’s education funding measures have a history of fizzling out. The spending increase will inevitably prompt a deficit-obsessed congress to express the ritual indignation and disgust. And increasing revenue through proposed tax increases for the wealthy will surely be stonewalled by fat-cat Republicans.
Back in the real world outside the congressional bubble, I believe Obama’s chosen routes to generate the funding for education will resonate well with many Americans, myself included. Poll after poll has shown the majority of Americans think the wealthy are not contributing their fair share back into the system from which they, most of all, have benefited.
Overhauling the tax system to close gaping corporate loopholes and incorporate practically untaxed forms of investment income is crucial to maintain our ability to reinvest in America. Obama has made vague noises about such an overhaul but provided disappointingly few concrete details.
I don’t know how much of the proposed decrease in defense spending is gimmick and how much is reality, but I sure like to see the red. The proposed $32 billion reduction from this year’s budget has even been defended by top military brass such as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey. At $70 billion, the total education budget is still a horrifyingly insignificant fraction of the $614 billion behemoth that is defense spending, but the plan is definitely a step in the right direction.
Of course, the non-Republican elephant in the budgetary room is mandatory spending on social security and Medicare / Medicaid, an issue our generation will unfortunately be grappling with for the remainder of our working lives. It is our dubious honor to be graduating into the workforce as the baby boomers retire. So it is on the backs of our labor that such a huge generation will be able to retire with dignity.
Our leaders must come up with a new system if we hope to avoid skyrocketing spending on the elderly. It is our responsibility to care for the old and infirm, but I think we are now realizing the current system won’t remain feasible for long.
It may seem like a vague and distant issue, but the federal budget will have significant and lasting impacts on all our lives. We students have much to gain and even more to lose. Regardless of your political leanings, if you’ve had enough of an overpriced and underfunded education system, call your representatives and endorse Obama’s budget plan, or at least the part that directly benefits you.