With the attention of the 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 year 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. The proposal calls for spending 20.7 percent higher than 2010 levels.
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 which will 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 either been laid off or taken lower-paying jobs, lowering their household income and qualifying them for the program.
He also said he "desperately want 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," said Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican and his party's ranking member on the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. "We cannot continue to throw money at this problem."
The Obama administration's request for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, could face a tougher reception in the GOP-dominated House.
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.
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