Trump Orders Education Department to Prioritize STEM & Computer Science Activities

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Publication date: 
4 October 2017

On Sept. 25, President Trump directed the Department of Education to annually commit at least $200 million of existing grant funds to activities that expand access to STEM and computer science education. The order makes clear that STEM education is an administration priority, although it contrasts with Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2018, which called for the elimination of several DOEd programs that support STEM education.


(Image credit - White House)

At a Sept. 25 Oval Office ceremony, President Trump signed a memorandum directing the Department of Education to commit at least $200 million in grant funds annually to activities that support STEM and computer science education. The president justified the move by saying, “Greater access to STEM and computer science programs will ensure that our children can develop the skills they need to compete and to win in the workforce of tomorrow.” 

Among those attending the event were Ivanka Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), and House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC).

The directive is part of a broader White House initiative focused on workforce development led by Ivanka Trump that includes a push to promote apprenticeships and career and technical education. The memo also arrives at a time the House Science Committee, under Smith’s leadership, has been emphasizing the importance of computer science education.

Memo formally establishes STEM as a priority, calls for using existing funds

The memo highlights STEM education as critical to developing the future workforce, asserting “it is critical that we educate and train our future workforce to compete and excel in lucrative and important STEM fields.” The memo warns, however, that currently there is insufficient access to high-quality STEM education, especially for women, minorities, and rural students. It says this them “at risk of being shut out from some of the most attractive job options in the growing United States economy.” 

To address this accessibility gap, the memo directs DOEd to establish STEM and computer science education as a priority and to commit at least $200 million to it annually. As no additional funds are proposed in the memo, funds would come from existing DOEd grant programs starting in fiscal year 2018. 

Pointing to teacher shortages as a national problem impeding access to STEM education, the memo states that DOEd should prioritize assisting school districts to “recruit and train teachers capable of providing students with a rigorous education in STEM fields, focusing in particular on Computer Science.” The memo also directs DOEd to “explore appropriate administrative actions … to add or increase focus on Computer Science in existing K–12 and post-secondary programs.”

The memo gives DOEd the discretion to determine which of its grant programs it can use to meet the directive. Existing DOEd grant programs authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) already support K-12 STEM and computer science initiatives in the states, including: the $400 million Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants and $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs within Title IV, and the $2.1 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants programs within Title II.

However, Trump’s statement of support for STEM education contrasts with the deep cuts that his administration proposed for DOEd in its fiscal year 2018 budget request, which called for the elimination of the three relevant ESSA grant programs. Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have rejected the proposed elimination of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants and 21st Century Community Learning Centers program within Title IV, but the committees diverge on funding for the Title II Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, which can be used to support STEM teacher development.

Initiative complements, contrasts with prior efforts

The memo’s call for increased focus on computer science education recalls similar efforts initiated by the Obama administration, including the Computer Science for All Initiative (CS for All) launched in 2016. Although Congress never approved the requested $4 billion in mandatory funds for computer science education at DOEd proposed as part of CS for All, the initiative led to increased action at the state and local levels to integrate computer science into the classroom. 

Like the Obama administration, President Trump has sought financial commitments from private industry and non-profit organizations to improve access to computer science education. The day after her father signed the memorandum, Ivanka Trump attended an event where technology industry leaders announced they are pledging over $300 million over the next five years for improving access to K–12 computer science education at the state and local levels. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Salesforce, which have committed to $50 million each, previously partnered with the Obama administration on implementing CS for All.

In contrast to the Obama effort, however, the Trump memo only calls on the Education Department to support improved access to STEM and computer science education. The other federal agencies that also have K-12 and post-secondary STEM education programs are not mentioned in the memo, although they already are coordinating with each other through the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM).

The National Science Foundation, for example, funds the lion’s share of the federal programs focused on STEM education, including research on effective computer science education, teacher development, and enrichment of computer science curriculum. NSF was also one of the primary federal agencies that participated in CS for All.

Following the approval of a final appropriations package for fiscal year 2018, DOEd will be required to inform the White House Office of Management and Budget within 30 days of how it plans to implement the new STEM education and computer science priority in the new fiscal year. Furthermore, DOEd is expected to release guidance soon on its priorities for discretionary grant programs, which will likely include details relevant to STEM education.

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