September 21, 2014

Where the President’s Budget Would Leave Libraries

President Barack Obama’s $3.9 trillion budget for fiscal year 2015 proposes slight cuts in federal library spending, strongly promotes a variety of early education programs, and funds an ongoing mission to connect students to high-speed Internet in their schools and libraries.

The budget Obama sent to Congress serves largely as a blueprint for the direction he wants to take the administration over the remainder of his second term. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the president’s $68.6 billion education plan, which emphasizes wider preschool access along with a technology initiative suitable for the growing digital culture. The fiscal year begins October 1.

IMLS flat, LSTA down

The Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), which fared well in the 2014 federal budget process, largely keeps those gains: the IMLS’ overall FY15 budget request of $226.4 million stayed almost flat from its 2014 enacted figure of $226.8 million. But there was some bad news: about $2.3 million has been trimmed from the Library Services Technology Act (LSTA), the only federal program devoted exclusively to libraries. Almost all of that $2.3 million came out of grants to states; $152.5 million budgeted for FY15 as opposed to the $154.8 funded by Congress for 2014.

“It’s not a negligible amount at all,” IMLS Director Susan Hildreth told Library Journal. But a year ago, she noted, IMLS budgeted $150 million (a $6.3 million cut) for LSTA grants to states, and Congress actually upped the enacted amount by $4.8 million. With similar luck this time around, states won’t have to make do with less federal library money.

“Congress really supports strongly these grants to states,” Hildreth told LJ, noting that grants are doled out to states strictly on a population-based formula, making them “non-competitive” and thus relatively safe from the usual partisan push-pull of budget politics. “We’re really about supporting institutions,” the IMLS director added.

The IMLS supports 123,000 libraries (and 17,500 museums) across the 50 states, through grants, policy development and research. Its FY15 budget request included very small increases in two areas: Native American and Native Hawaiian library services (about $8,000) and National Leadership Grants ($12,000).

A priority for these National Leadership Grants, Hildreth said, is the STEM learning initiative strongly endorsed by the Obama administration. “We try to align our priorities with the president’s,” she said. STEM is a modern educational discipline emphasizing science, technology, engineering or mathematics in the classroom.

For 2015, Hildreth said IMLS will continue to foster partnerships with federal agencies interested in taking advantage of the skills librarians offer. The Office of Adult Vocational Education has been exploring such a partnership, she added, which may be expanded in the coming fiscal calendar.

“We’re feeling OK about where we are,” Hildreth said of her 2015 budget proposal. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of room for growth.”

E-rate and beyond

According to the federal government, the average school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users. In his budget message, Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reaffirm its multiyear goal of connecting “99 percent of American students to the digital age” through high-speed wireless networks and “next-generation broadband” in American schools and libraries. As a “down-payment” on this goal, the FCC has been tasked with connecting more than 20 million students in 15,000 schools to this technology over the next two years.  The FCC funds such connections from the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, more commonly known as E-Rate. The fund does not use appropriated funds, so it is not part of the federal budget process, but it is capped, which makes it difficult to keep up with the evolving technology available.

To augment this funding, the White House has now proposed an initiative called ConnectEDucators as part of the Department of Education budget. The $200 million program would, within five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students to “next generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries,” and provide support and training in how to use that technology to help improve student outcomes to educators. Another $300 million would fund the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, designed to give 100,000 teachers in 500 school districts access to professional development.

Connectivity as a priority shows up elsewhere in the budget as well: even the Department of Agriculture has $23.7 billion earmarked in part to “double broadband access to rural communities in need.”

Early ed, high need, Student Loans, and STEM

Of the $68.6 billon the president hopes to spend on education, about 77 percent is spent on financial aid for college students, special education, and Title 1 grants for schools in high-poverty areas. From the remaining 23 percent, Obama pushed for a Preschool for All program, giving every low- and moderate-income 4-year-old in America access to quality pre-kindergarten education. This initiative would also provide incentive for states to establish full-day kindergarten. A Race to the Top Equity and Opportunity program was also introduced in Obama’s budget, which centers on increasing the performance of high-need students.

The administration also wants to spend $2.9 billion on STEM education programs in 2015, an increase of 3.7 percent over the previous year. This would support the president’s “fresh” strategic plan for STEM, designed to reduce what the budget plan called “fragmentation” of the education strategy in 2014 among a host of separate government agencies. To meet the president’s goal of recruiting and training 100,000 STEM teachers, and retaining them, over the next decade, the Department of Education has budgeted some $170 million for a variety of programs.

The budget also boosts money for Pell Grants and creates a loan-repayment plan to ease the burden on college students who take out federal loans.

Research falls flat

According to Scientific American, the budget set federal spending on research and development at civilian science agencies at $65.9 billion, an increase of less than one percent over FY14. “There’s not enough money to do anything interesting,” Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, MD, told the magazine.

The National Institutes of Health ($30.2 billion for FY15, up from $30.15 billion) and National Science Foundation ($7.255 billion for FY15, up from $7.18 billion) each received bare-bones increases in the president’s budget.

In a statement, the non-profit Association of American Universities said, “The President’s FY15 budget does disappointingly little to close the nation’s innovation deficit.”

Scientific American also noted that keeping spending flat on scientific research practically equates to a cut, given rising costs. The publication cites the NIH’s own Biomedical Research and Development Price Index, which calculates a 2.9 percent increase in the cost of doing research for FY15, far outpacing the NIH’s 0.7 percent projected budget increase.

However, the president’s budget message certainly promoted the value of science and research. “Scientific discovery and technological breakthroughs are the primary engines not only for expanding the frontiers of human knowledge but also for responding in innovative, practical ways to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century,” the administration wrote.

There is one scenario proposed by the administration that would provide somewhat of a windfall for scientific research, although Inside Higher Ed called the plan “illusory.” This Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative would channel $56 billion for a variety of agencies, including NIH ($970 million) and the National Science Foundation ($552 million). But to free up this money, Congress would have to agree to new taxes on the wealthy and spending cuts to programs including farm subsidies.

Keep opening up

The administration also plans to continue opening government data to the public, mainly as an avenue toward private sector innovation and job growth. Health care, energy, education, public safety, tourism and agriculture are just some of the areas that can benefit from this “high priority on transparency,” the administration stated, adding that Obama’s open-data emphasis has been in place since 2009 with encouraging results.

“The use of this data has resulted in new start-up companies and ventures, creating jobs and driving innovation,” based on the release of tens of thousands of data sets already made available for public scrutiny, the administration boasts in its budget.

Results from government-sponsored research and development must also be shared with the “commercial marketplace” in an accelerated fashion, the budget states. As part of this effort, Obama proposed increased funding for technology transfer from federal labs in the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and for the National Science Foundation’s public-private Innovation Corps program.

 LC budget on track

Meanwhile, work continues on the Library of Congress FY15 budget, which is not contained in the president’s spending plan, but is part of the overall legislative branch appropriations bill. During a hearing earlier this month, members of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee seemed to support a modest increase of 2.4 percent to about $593 million, which would keep staffing level at 3,746 FTEs. The $14,084 million increase would mostly go for mandated staff pay increases and other cost increases.

At the Congressional hearing in early March, Librarian of Congress James Billington was praised for keeping costs down and stewarding the institution through a difficult period of staff reductions and reduced budget appropriations, mostly from 2010 to 2013.

“You’ve digitized this massive collection of information at the same time we’ve cut the budget and we’ve cut the workforce,” Rep. James Moran (D-VA) told Billington, as reported by Roll Call.

Far from final

 What the final budget adopted by Congress will look like, of course, is anyone’s guess, given today’s contentiously partisan political climate and emphasis on debt reduction. According to Politico, little of the president’s budget is expected to become law, or even be considered as part of legislation. House Republicans are already drafting their own budget without reference to the President’s goals, and, as the Washington Post reports, since the December budget deal already set spending levels for fiscal 2015, the Senate Democrats have opted not to draft a budget at all, ensuring that no budget can be enacted.

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Comments

  1. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    There is a difference in the Congress between a budget, which sets out baseline money levels, and appropriations matters like this. Broad spending levels are adopted already. Appropriations provide the legal authority to spend that money for particular purposes. The President’s required annual proposal was submitted late. Spending bills are constitutionally required to be initiated in the House and the Senate can amend and negotiate as necessary.

    I realize people may feel unfamiliar after 5 years with how this process should normally work but feeling it is doomed in mid-March is quite premature. The federal government’s new fiscal year starts on October 1st and quite a lot can happen in six months. We need not necessarily expect doom.

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