With the attention of lawmakers focused squarely on reducing the nation's debt, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday defended his department's request for a budget increase in fiscal 2012.
"You can't sacrifice the future to pay for the present," Mr. Duncan told members of a Senate subcommittee. "I want all of us to work together [to reduce America's budget deficits and debt] in a way that does not undermine the education of our nation and the education of our children."
The Education Department is seeking a 13.3 percent budget increase over 2011, which would make department spending 20.7 percent higher than 2010 levels.
At a time of belt-tightening across the federal government, Republicans have little interest in budget increases. While the proposal could pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, it likely will face stiff resistance in the Republican-led House.
"Our nation is $14 trillion in debt, and we must rein in spending ... Mr. Secretary, how can you consider an over 20 percent increase since fiscal year 2010 a responsible budget?" asked Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and his party's ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies.
The need for additional spending is being driven largely by Pell Grants, the popular tuition assistance program, which has seen its costs more than double over the past four years. Mr. Duncan is seeking $28.6 billion in discretionary Pell spending in 2012, an amount that would cover the ever-rising number of students who qualify.
Mr. Duncan said the economic downturn has led to many more students seeking Pell Grants, often because their parents have been laid off or have taken lower-paying jobs, lowering their household income and qualifying them for the program.
He also said he "desperately" wants to preserve the maximum Pell Grant award of $5,550, but Republicans think the program needs serious reform.
"The Pell Grant Program is on a fiscally unsustainable path," Mr. Shelby said. "We cannot continue to throw money at this problem."
Democrats argue that reducing Pell spending would limit many students' access to college at a time when the nation needs more educated workers, not fewer.
"I hope we keep our eye on exactly what's happening here. ... We have an increase use of Pell grants because we have more poor people," said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and subcommittee chairman.
Mr. Duncan stressed that the administration already has made "tough choices" with respect to Pell Grants, which benefit more than 9 million low-income students across the country. As part of the continuing budget resolution passed earlier this year, the "two Pells" provision, which allowed some students to get two grants in a calendar year, was eliminated.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders are continuing to work on an overhaul to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Harkin, who also is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he'll introduce a reform package "this year."
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, led by Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, has already passed three bills in a five-part package. Each awaits a vote on the House floor.
One reform idea drew bipartisan agreement at Wednesday's hearing. Mr. Duncan voiced support for extending the school year after the idea was brought up by Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.
"I think we're crazy on this," Mr. Duncan said of the traditional summer break. "Other countries that are out-educating us today ... a lot of them are just going to school 30, 40, 50 more days a year than we are."
Mr. Kirk agreed, saying students in his home state are "set back" by the time off.
"The country should begin a debate about moving to all-year school," he said.
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