Blog: The Educated Reporter

Legislators Grill Duncan Over Proposed Budget

In an at-times impassioned session of inquiry, legislators from the U.S. House of Representatives grilled Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the department’s 2013 budget request at the Labor Subcommittee hearing today.

As expected, House representatives from the Republican side—which controls the lower chamber of Congress—were less sympathetic to the administration’s spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year, charging Duncan with giving short shrift to rural communities and not holding up his end of the bargain to institute painful spending cuts.

Many topics were broached; here are a few that particularly struck me:

  • Several Republican lawmakers representing states with large rural populations were critical of the administration’s proposed $67 million in cuts
 to the Impact Aid Program. They argued 
the reduced spending, which amounts to about a 5.1 percent trim to the program, affects homeowners in their districts unfairly. 

Impact Aid provides additional funds to districts that have “federally 
connected students”—like those on Indian reservations, on military bases
 and in housing projects—that do not provide local tax revenue because
 their parents don’t pay property taxes.

    The specific piece that the
 president proposed eliminating affects districts with federally owned 
property. Currently, districts that consist of more than 10 percent 
federal land get additional Impact Aid funds. The administration 
justifies the change by arguing that the funds for federal property are not
 actually connected to students living on that property. As a result, 
these funds do not necessarily go to providing services to 
federally connected students. Lawmakers from rural areas are usually 
interested in the funds because they have low property tax revenues,
 the result of homeowners spread over a large swatch of territory.
  • Duncan, fielding a question as to why the Department is pursuing new, expensive projects while there are current programs that could use additional financial support, said Race to the Top will transform “education as we know it.”

    He deflected concerns that the Department isn’t doing its part to drive down the national debt, explaining “education has to be the great equalizer.” The secretary endured some scorn from Republican lawmakers who took exception to his invoking Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which squeaked out of committee with a one-vote majority yesterday. Duncan said Ryan’s plan would lead to “catastrophic cuts in education” and have “disastrous consequences for American children.” Duncan’s office speculates several marquee education programs that assist low-income families will be gutted, among those: 130,000 work-study positions will be cut, and 100,000 fewer children will be able to participate in Head Start.

    Rep. Michael K. Simpson (R-Idaho) said it was unfair for the secretary to project losses, bristling at the suggestion anyone could know how the budget will shape up in the months ahead. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, (D-Conn.), felt differently, arguing that since the budget made it out of committee and is slated to cut federal education spending by $115 billion over a ten-year period, Ryan’s plan is fair game. 
  • On teacher training academies, Duncan made a plug for recruiting more minority teachers, saying “teachers should reflect the diversity of students.” On subsidies for school meal programs and i3 grants that promote public-private partnerships, Duncan said students cannot learn if “stomachs are growling.” As of 2011, the number of students on free and reduced-lunch programs had jumped by 17 percent since 2006-07. One-fifth of the nation’s children live in poverty, and urban centers often have much higher percentages of child poverty. Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, whose school districts serve 2.5 million students, have 77 percent of their pupils receiving reduced-price lunches.
  • DeLauro shared her worries over the planned changes to the Perkins Loan program, one of several subsidized federal tuition-borrowing programs that are available to low-income college students. The new budget would enshrine a 1 percent loan origination fee and decrease the grace period from nine months to six. She also expressed concern that interest rates for federal student loans will double this summer.
  • The panel also asked Duncan why college costs are rising. Some speculated that federal subsidies such as the Pell Grant have created an incentive for universities to increase prices, a talking point voiced by individuals as diverse as presidential candidate Ron Paul and Education Sector policy guru Kevin Carey. Duncan replied that even in years that the Pell Grant remained flat, the average cost of tuition went up. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) countered that if there’s a trend in place in which Pell Grant awards will go up, universities can reasonably expect to raise prices. He added that since 1980, Pell Grant awards have risen by over 470 percent, while tuition prices grew at a similar clip. 
  • Asked by the panel why the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—a voucher program for residents of the District of Columbia—was written out of the president’s budget request, Duncan said he is not interested in helping three children and “letting 500 drown.”