Bolstering the nation’s math and science teacher ranks and equipping U.S. students with the skills they need to be competitive in the global economy was the foundation for a new 10-year, $136 billion education and research program, called the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), proposed by President Bush during his annual State of the Union address to Congress Jan. 31.

Education groups largely embraced the plan when it was first announced. But their enthusiasm waned with the release of the president’s 2007 budget proposal just six days later, which would cut 42 education programs totaling more than $3 billion. Many of the programs slated for elimination are crucial to achieving the plan’s ambitious goals, they said.

A joint effort between the Departments of Education, Commerce, Labor, and Energy, in conjunction with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology, ACI aims to more than double the federal government’s investment in research and development in the physical sciences over the next 10 years, foster the creation of more public-private partnerships between top-flight universities and leading corporations, and bolster the nation’s education system by recruiting and training as many as 100,000 full- and part-time teachers to provide more students with rigorous, high-quality, college-level instruction in important technical disciplines such as math and science.

“[T]o keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity,” said Bush in his speech. “Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people, and we are going to keep that edge.”

Driven by the perception that the United States is losing ground as a world economic power, mainly to rapidly developing nations such as India and China, Bush said his initiative is intended to give today’s students “a firm grounding in areas such as math and science,” so they have the technical skills to win high-paying jobs and ensure that America remains a leader on the world economic stage.

To support this effort, the president asked Congress for $5.6 billion for the program’s first year in his 2007 budget proposal.

Of those funds, just $380 million would go to the Department of Education, most of which would be used to fund an ambitious new training program intended to increase the number of highly skilled math and science teachers working in the nation’s schools. The president’s proposal seeks to provide additional training to as many as 70,000 existing high school teachers over the next five years, giving educators the know-how they need to effectively teach higher-level Advanced Placement and college-level courses, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, where good help often is hard to find.

In addition, Bush has proposed bringing as many as 30,000 private-sector employees into the classroom to serve as adjunct teachers, acting under the belief that these people will serve as both guides and mentors to students as they enter the workforce and move on in their pursuit of a successful career.

Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, had this to say of the president’s proposal: “Science and math education–in addition to basic research and policies that encourage innovation at our nation’s labs and universities–are critical to our nation’s future competitiveness. Our nation’s science teachers are educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, and workers who will find new ways to defend our country, create new technologies, and cure diseases. We commend the president for highlighting the importance of science and math before a national audience.”

After Bush unveiled his 2007 budget figures, however, the tone of most education groups changed dramatically.

The National Education Association (NEA) “shares the desire of the president and Congress for the United States to remain competitive in the changing global economy, but that simply cannot happen without a strong commitment to 21st-century skills and funding for educational technology,” said NEA President Reg Weaver in a statement about the budget proposal. The $272 million Enhancing Education Through Technology program was one of the 42 initiatives that would be cut under Bush’s plan.

Bush’s new education proposals are part of a larger plan to spur technology innovation. Another way ACI seeks to promote economic competitiveness is through the approval of some $4.6 billion in tax credits to U.S.-based companies to encourage the continued development of new technologies.

By enacting a widespread, permanent tax credit, the White House aims to embolden corporations, giving companies certainty in their tax planning and encouraging more aggressive research and development.

In addition to the tax credits, another $910 million will go to bolster research and development in the public sector and through government agencies. A large chunk of that money–$137 million–is expected to promote federal research through organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. The investment is intended to buttress the development of a wide range of new and emerging technologies with implications for schools, including nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative sources of energy.

If the plan holds, Bush expects the federal government’s financial stake in these agencies to increase by $50 billion over the next 10 years.

Pointing out that the global economy has provided 3 billion new competitors for U.S. corporations, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez called on “every company and every community in the country” to meet the challenge by supporting the president’s plan.

But despite enthusiasm from the White House and throughout the broader administration, Democrats in what has become an increasingly partisan Congress questioned whether the president has expended too much political capital battling issues such as the debate over federal wiretapping and the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq to see these and other domestic improvements through.

Last November, Congressional Democrats proposed a competitiveness agenda of their own design (see story:

Introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Democrats’ proposal featured a “five-pronged” strategy for improving education and promoting economic progress, including offering financial incentives to attract more high-quality teachers to science and math classrooms, promoting the use and expansion of school and community-wide broadband internet access, and making college tuition tax-deductible for prospective teachers specializing in science and math instruction.

Speaking for the Democratic National Party in response to the president’s speech, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said the administration has failed to provide enough funding to adequately support the goals of the president’s signature education law.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is wreaking havoc on the nation’s school districts,” said Kaine. “Despite the insistence of Democrats in Congress that the program should be funded as promised, the administration has opposed full funding … There has got to be a better way.”

See these related links:

The White House

U.S. Department of Commerce