The Washington Times - November 30, 2009, 12:29PM

 

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan denied any lobbying effort has been afoot over the pending legislation known as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). Secretary Duncan responded to The Washington Times’s question about whether or not there was a violation of the 2009 Omnibus Act, which prohibits lobbying for pending legislation by government agencies, by the administration during a conference call with college presidents. Today’s Washington Times editorial titled “Schoolyard bullies” talks about the administration’s effort to push this legislation prior the passage.

The Washington Times also asked why the Obama administration continues to reject the renewal of the Washington D.C. voucher program. The Education Secretary tore apart the program in favor of claiming that it was better to improve the current system. Secretary Duncan argues that only a few kids are being ‘saved’ in lieu of countless others, but about 1700 low-income students will be dropped from the program once it ends in the beginning of the year. This is hardly a handful of individuals who will be affected.

Mr. Duncan’s other responses are amusing at best. The Washington Times Water Cooler reported in October that Education Department officials were on a conference call with college presidents. Undersecretary Martha Kanter talked about the SAFRA legislation that had passed the House and why college presidents’ “voice[s] is critically needed in this process.” :

(EXCERPT)

“And so your voice is critically needed in this process. And we hope you’ll join us as we walk through opportunities before us, the largest of which right now is H.R. 3221 known as the American Graduation Initiative … I think many of you know what’s in the bill. And we - it has passed through the House. It is in the Senate right now. And the Senate - we are waiting the Senate version to hopefully move this to completion. … The bulk of this effort is devoted to American higher education with a specific focus on community colleges … (The bill) will usher in new innovations and reforms for the community colleges to support what Dr. (Jill) Biden has talked about, 5 million more graduates with degrees and certificates from the community colleges by 2020. … There’ll also be about $2-1/2 billion in grants to leverage private sector funding for an estimated total of $10 billion in investments so that we will have funding to modernize community college facilities.”

 

Mr. Duncan also told the Washington Times he had no role in telling colleges to convert to the government’s Direct Loan Program (found in the pending SAFRA legislation), but according to a letter sent to colleges in late October, Secretary Duncan is seemingly doing otherwise.:

(EXCERPT)

As this academic year moves forward, it is hard to believe we already need to consider the 2010-2011 year to come.  In doing so, I am writing to seek your assistance and offer mine in taking the necessary steps to ensure uninterrupted access to federal student loans by ensuring your institution is Direct Loan-ready for the 2010-2011 academic year.

(EXCERPT)

As you know, the Direct Loan Program provides students with the same types of loans, with essentially the same terms, as those made in the FFEL Program.

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(EXCERPT)

I do not anticipate any major loan access problems during the remainder of this academic year because Congress’s temporary measure remains in effect.  However, while there are encouraging signs that the financial markets are rebounding, the most prudent course of action is for you to ensure that your institution is Direct Loan-ready for the 2010-2011 academic year.  That way, loan access for your students will be assured.  As you may know, President Obama has proposed that Congress make the loan system more reliable by moving to a 100 percent Direct Loan delivery system.  In any event, under current law, ECASLA will expire, and the continued participation of FFEL Program lenders will be in question.

The Department of Education stands ready to assist with any questions you and your staff may have about becoming Direct Loan-ready.  Many institutions have already taken the initial step of contacting us to ensure the appropriate transition steps have been taken at Federal Student Aid to begin the process.  If your school has not taken this initial step, we recommend that you do so. 

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

PICKET: “Secretary Duncan, I was wondering if you could talk about SAFRA here.  The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act has yet to pass the Senate, yet there have been conference calls with college presidents as well as issues of the administration leaning on groups to lobby, to have this legislation passed.  Isn’t this a violation of the 2009 Omnibus Act?

“Also I’d like to know, in regards to the D.C. vouchers program, why is it that the administration still doesn’t support it even though the Washington Post and the Washington Times, which I’m apart of, have called on the administration to continue the program?”

DUNCAN:“So I think your first point is wrong.  We haven’t lobbied anyone to that.  We have said that we have $87 billion dollars that is now subsidizing banks. We think of much better use of tax payer scarce resources to invest in children. And we think that’s the right thing to do. The House passed this with a strong support. It is now going to vote before the Senate and if that passes, the chance to invest $87 billion in higher education – in early childhood education – is hugely important.  And so we’re hopeful that that will pass the Senate.

“You’re second question: What I’ve said repeatedly is I just think at the end of the day we fought hard, as you know, to keep children in schools, in those schools, and not to just place them.  At the end of the day the goal is about fixing the system and I think we have to be more ambitious.  As a country we like to save one or two children in a neighborhood and let the other 500 drown and then go home and sleep well at night.  I think we have to be much more ambitious as a federal government, as a state government, as a local district.  Our goal is to save every single child.  

“This turn around effort that we’re talking about does that.  Now I can take you to schools in Chicago, I can take you to schools in Philadelphia, I can take you to schools in New York where the overwhelming majority of students were failing.  And by turning those schools around, the overwhelming majority of students are succeeding –  not pulling one or two out to save them, the entire community.  There’s a school in Philadelphia, Mastery Charter, where two years ago it was the second most violent school in the city and 20 percent of kids were at grade level.  Two years later, same children, same building, same families, same neighborhood, same socioeconomic challenges – 85 percent of those kids are passing.  They’ve actually closed the achievement gap with children in the suburbs.  Not saving two children, the entire community.  That’s what’s possible.  I don’t think folks understand how serious we are about that yet.”

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PICKET:  “Secretary, are you actually demanding that the colleges actually change to the system that SAFRA wants to install even before the legislation has been passed?”

DUNCAN: “No, no.”

DUNCAN AIDE: “He’s gotta go (??).”

PICKET: “You’re not doing that sir?”