Senate Appropriators Spotlight STEM Education Funding

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Publication date: 
23 March 2017

At a Senate hearing, appropriations subcommittee members stressed the importance of sustaining federal investment in STEM education programs during a time of uncertainty for education funding.

On March 15, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing highlighting the importance of federal investment in STEM education programs. In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) kicked off the meeting, emphasizing that

STEM … is critical for the economic competitiveness and security of our nation … [STEM education] provides the basic skills and competencies all students need, and prepares them for well-paying careers across education levels.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) echoed Blunt’s sentiment, commenting that “investments in education and training are some of the most important we can make.”


Female students learning science at Argonne National Laboratory

(Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

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Witnesses cite successful STEM education initiatives

At the hearing, educational leaders from different places in the U.S. testified about their experiences implementing programs funded by federal education grants, underlining the role of STEM programs as drivers of local economic growth and regional prosperity. Neil Lamb, vice president for educational outreach for the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, warned the subcommittee about a “‘leaky’ STEM workforce development pipeline”, and stressed that “with fierce competition from other countries seeking to overtake the U.S. position in achievement and innovation, sustained national support of STEM literacy is critical.”

Imperative to fixing this "leaky” STEM pipeline, said the witnesses, is federal support for local STEM education program development. Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education, spoke about partnerships with community colleges in her state that provide students with experiences in local industry as well as work-based learning opportunities for workers displaced from coal-mining. Caroline King, chief policy and strategy officer for Washington STEM, spoke about the state youth aerospace apprenticeship program which provides high school students with paid, on-the-job training for students in Takoma Public Schools.

Others witnesses advocated for funding of various federal education programs, including components of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a major K-12 education law enacted in December 2015 that authorizes grants to the states for  STEM education, among other activities. Larry Plank, Director of K-12 STEM Education for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, urged the subcommittee to fully fund ESSA Title IV grants, which support access to a well-rounded education and aim to improve the conditions for learning, as “[they] would allow high need districts to promote hands-on STEM learning … and integrate informal and formal STEM programs”, such as informal after school robotics clubs.

Bipartisan support expressed for STEM programs

Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle expressed their overwhelming support for continued federal funding for STEM programs. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) commented that STEM will have a role in every field of work in the future, passionately declaring,

I think we need to have a broader conversation about why basic STEM education should be increasingly become a part of our overall curriculum … because I can’t imagine any field of work in the next ten to fifteen years that won’t require people to be proficient to some degree on the use and application of technology.

On a similar note, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) agreed that “STEM jobs are the future" and meeting the need for filling STEM jobs “is a real challenge and one that we have to meet if we are going to be competitive in this country.” Shaheen also reflected on her experience as an educator, praising Title IV Part A grants, which aim to support programs outside the classroom that engage students with STEM subjects.

Administration may have different priorities for funding

While STEM education has significant support in Congress, the Trump administration’s proposed priorities are under scrutiny. In February, President Trump signed into law two bipartisan bills that promote the advancement of women in STEM fields. These two laws direct NSF and NASA to encourage and support more women entering the STEM workforce and becoming entrepreneurs.

However, the administration’s budget plan released last week proposes a $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent, cut to the Department of Education’s budget, reducing or eliminating programs for teacher professional development, after-school and summer enrichment programs, as well as programs that assist disadvantaged students in secondary schools prepare for college. 

Earlier this year, the Physical Sciences Education Coalition, an AIP-chaired advocacy group, sent a letter to President Trump stressing that "training in the physical sciences is essential to the nation for a highly-productive workforce, health economy, and strong security," and recommending that the administration support STEM-related programs outlined in ESSA. The STEM Education Coalition sent letters to both President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for support of federal funding for ESSA, particularly for Title IV Part A. The coalition is concerned that the proposed cuts would decrease the effectiveness of ESSA, which passed with bipartisan support.

Now congressional appropriators will need to decide if sustained funding for STEM education is going to be one of their priorities for fiscal year 2018.