This week, President Donald Trump released a memorandum to increase access to high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The memo directs the secretary of education to prioritize $200 million per year to promote STEM and computer-science instruction at the state level through the agency’s existing grant programs.
The memo’s focus on STEM and computer-science education comes at a shock to many who have viewed the administration as one that ignores the importance of STEM to the future of the nation. To date, Trump’s Office of Science and Technology Policy remains largely unstaffed. During prior administrations, this office functioned as a conduit for advising the president on U.S. STEM investments and related issues. Trump, however, appears to be relying more on advisory groups, consisting largely of members of industry, to advise him on potential national priorities.
The move to direct investments at the Department of Education contradicts much of the rhetoric from the president and members of his party that called for the abolishment or severe reduction of the agency. Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 seemed to add weight to those words by recommending a $9.2 billion cut to the agency’s budget. The request proposed eliminating or reducing more than 30 programs that the administration felt were either duplicative, ineffective or not appropriate for the federal government to support. The House of Representatives and Senate appropriation bills shielded the Department of Education from most of the administration’s proposed cuts and reaffirmed Congress’ commitment to the department’s work to support the STEM workforce pipeline.
The administration’s focus on STEM and computer-science education, however, is not new but indicative of where STEM education has been moving for some time now. The National Academies this year released a report entitled Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce, which outlined a number of recommendations to aid the U.S. transition to a more STEM-focused economy. Federal agencies also have focused more heavily on K-12 STEM instruction, with increased emphasis on computer-science as not only a separate discipline but an integral part of STEM education as a whole. In the last year of his presidency, Barack Obama pushed for STEM and computer-science education through the STEM for All and Computer-science for All initiatives, though Congress neglected to provide the funding needed to support the latter.
Trump’s initiative, led by his daughter Ivanka Trimp, avoids devoting new federal dollars through a partnership with the Internet Association. This organization pledges to provide $300 million over five years in support of K-12 computer-science instruction. How these activities will be supported after the five year period and how the Department of Education plans to prioritize funds is currently unclear. The memo directs the secretary of education to submit a plan for how the agency will shift its focus within 30 days of the passing of a final appropriations bill, with progress reports submitted to Office of Management and Budget 90 days after each fiscal year.
The federal government has been the major source of support for innovation and education initiatives nationwide. While commitment’s from the private sector have merit and should continue to be explored, relying too heavily on the private sector without sufficient parity in support from the government could leave disciplines and the workforce at-large deserted if supplemental funding begins to dry up.