New Bill Would Support STEM Funding Despite Budget Cuts

 

April 2011

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
New Bill Would Support STEM Funding Despite Budget Cuts

BY SARAH OGDEN

STEM educationSTEM education is a jobs issue. The acronym, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, rolls as easily from the tongues of Republicans as Democrats and is the new hook on which America hangs its hopes for a brighter economic future. Implementing STEM education at the K?12 level, however, has become contentious, with federal belt-tightening dividing support for STEM funding more or less along party lines. Though STEM education may be the key to a prosperous future, the U.S. needs to reduce its deficit now.

According to the recent National Academy of Engineering report Standards for K?12 Engineering Education?, "STEM education is important in part because it can develop student interest and aptitude in subjects directly relevant to the nation's capacity for research and innovation. This capacity is largely credited with supporting U.S. economic health, national security, and quality of life." In fact, the National Science Foundation finds that science and engineering jobs make up just 4% of the workforce but disproportionately create jobs for the other 96%.

In keeping with NAE's findings, President Obama declared in the January State of the Union that STEM education is a strategic priority despite the fiscally conservative climate. "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine," he said. His FY12 agenda maintains that approach, calling for $100 million to train 100,000 new STEM education teachers over the next decade and proposing the creation of a $90 million Advanced Research Projects Agency?Education.

Meanwhile, STEM education could fall victim to the deep FY11 spending cuts Congress is hammering out as part of a Republican plan to drastically reduce nonsecurity discretionary spending over the next five years. The House's version of the February continuing resolution reduced funding for the National Science Foundation's Education and Human Resources Directorate by $166 million and completely eliminated the Department of Education's Math and Science Partnership Program. The STEM Education Coalition, of which NSPE is a member, sent a letter urging Congress to reconsider cutting these key programs.

One reason STEM education is under fire is that several powerful STEM education supporters have retired, including former House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon and former STEM Education Congressional Caucus Cochairman Vern Ehlers. Among the remaining STEM education advocates are Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), both of whom are engineers. Reps. Lipinski and Tonko defended STEM education funding at a recent congressional briefing held by the American Society for Engineering Education. Both representatives credited their success in Congress to the critical thinking and problem-solving skills integral to engineering.

Rep. Tonko is leading the charge for STEM education with new legislation, too: He and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) were expected to introduce the Engineering Education for Innovation Act in early March. The bill, which was first introduced in the 111th Congress but failed to pass, would establish a grant program to help states improve their K?12 engineering education programs, with the goals of enhancing student interest and competency in engineering, increasing the number of teachers qualified to teach engineering, and broadening the diversity of students participating in engineering. NSPE sent a letter to Sen. Gillibrand and Rep. Tonko in support of the proposed bill.

Specifically, the bill would fund grants to integrate engineering into K?12 curricula, enhance teacher preparation and professional development, recruit qualified teachers, and invest in distance-learning and after-school engineering programs. The bill also requires that programs implemented using grant money be evaluated to assess how well they met the legislation's goals and to determine how states' successful programs could be used in other states. In addition to ensuring accountability for taxpayers, this benchmarking may help supplement the relatively sparse body of research about K?12 engineering education and guide future recommendations.

It is uncertain how STEM education will fare as Congress struggles to put the brakes on runaway spending and energize the sluggish economy. If the U.S. is to maintain its long-term economic health and remain technologically competitive, however, investing in STEM education is critical—and there is no time to waste.

To read more, visit NSPE's blog on "STEM & State of the Union" at http://community.nspe.org/blogs.