By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday proposed substantial new spending on education with a $69.8 billion education budget heavily focused on boosting vocational training, both at the high-school and college level.
Overall, Obama asked for an increase of 2.5 percent, or $1.7 billion, in discretionary spending on education as part of his fiscal 2013 budget proposal to Congress.
The centerpiece of the education budget was an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund, which aims to train 2 million workers for jobs in fields such as high-tech manufacturing, clean energy and healthcare.
The initiative would encourage partnerships between two-year colleges and local businesses to identify in-demand skills and develop courses that help build them. It would also finance online and in-person training for up to 600,000 aspiring entrepreneurs.
The fund would require congressional approval, which is far from assured. In 2009, when Obama called for an aggressive $12 billion investment in community colleges Congress allocated just $2 billion.
This time, Congressional Republicans vowed as soon as the budget was released to block big spending on new programs, calling for a focus on deficit reduction instead.
All four Republicans vying to stand against Obama in the November presidential election have also demanded a much smaller role in education for the federal government.
Several pricey initiatives in Obama's proposed budget were likely to be popular with middle-class voters. They included making permanent a tax credit that some 9 million taxpayers use to offset the cost of college tuition; scrapping a scheduled hike in interest rates on student loans; and increasing Pell Grants for low-income students attending college.
Obama also repeated his call from the State of the Union address last month for colleges to present more transparent information about tuition costs, average student loan debt, graduation rates and how well graduates fare in the job market.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the College to Career initiative relied on community colleges developing strong relationships with local employers, who could help design courses and degree programs to "train workers for skills that businesses are looking for right now." The businesses would also be expected to offer apprenticeships.
Duncan cited as models community colleges in Nevada that are ramping up nursing programs to meet local demand and schools in Florida that cater to a growing fashion industry. "It's really important that this not be driven by us in Washington," but be based on local business needs, Duncan said.
Federal job-training programs, however, don't always work as advertised. A federal audit released a few months ago found serious hitches in a Labor Department program to train workers for clean-energy jobs as part of the economic stimulus bill.
The agency received $500 million to train 115,000 workers, but as of June 30, 2011, just 26,000 workers had completed training and only 8,000 of them had found work, according to the U.S. Office of Inspector General. A Labor Department spokeswoman said that the program had ramped up considerably in recent months.
In primary and secondary schools, Obama is pushing to expand his signature Race to the Top initiative. The competitive grant program prods states to take dramatic steps such as wiping out traditional teacher tenure protections so that administrators have more flexibility to fire teachers who are performing poorly.
The new budget called for pumping a further $850 million into Race to the Top. Some of that money would be set aside for individual school districts, rather than states. And some would be directed to programs that serve the nation's youngest students, by getting low-income and at-risk three- and four-year olds ready for kindergarten.
Obama also asked Congress to direct $1.1 billion to improve vocational and technical education at the secondary-school level. He proposed spending a further $1 billion on high-school "career academies" that train future workers in industries such as health care or information technology.
Until recently, vocational education wasn't popular in reform circles because "there was a worry that poor or minority kids were being pushed into that track and a feeling that college should be for everyone," said Michael Petrilli, an educational policy analyst with the Fordham Institute. "We're seeing the pendulum swing back now."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon; Editing by David Storey)