Education Secretary Duncan defends big increase in school funding

Education Secretary Arne Duncan used Thursday’s appearance before a key House subcommittee to not only defend the Obama administration’s request for a $1.7 billion increase in school funding for fiscal 2013, but also to rip the GOP budget proposal laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan earlier this week.

“However well-intentioned, the Ryan plan would lead to catastrophic cuts in education,” Mr. Duncan said of the blueprint put forth by Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee. Mr. Ryan’s panel passed his proposal Wednesday night, and it is expected to come to the House floor as early as next week.

Both Mr. Ryan’s proposal and the administration’s budget are unlikely to become law, and the Democrat-controlled Senate is poised to forgo a formal budget for the fourth year in a row.

Despite its poor prospects for passage, the Ryan plan, which over the next decade allots $5.2 trillion less than the Obama proposal, was held up by Mr. Duncan as an example of Republicans’ intent to balance “the budget on the backs of America’s students.”

He told the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies that, if the Ryan proposal is adopted, Title I funding, Head Start and other programs could see drastic cuts. Mr. Duncan acknowledged the nation’s dire financial straits and mounting debt, yet still called on Congress to ramp up education spending, painting it as the most effective way to build a qualified, competent American workforce.

The administration’s budget calls for a 2.5 percent increase in education spending, pushing the department’s discretionary budget to nearly $70 billion. It seeks about $1 billion in new spending for the popular grant program Race to the Top to create a new contest for colleges and universities. It also would fund a first-ever district-level competition; previous rounds were conducted at the state level.

The spending plan maintains the maximum Pell Grant award at $5,550 per student, makes permanent a college tax credit worth up to $10,000 per student over four years, and would stop interest rates on federal loans from doubling later this year.

While agreeing that education must remain a priority, some House Republicans blasted the administration’s proposal for calling for big spending increases while ignoring the nation’s fiscal reality.

“Is this important enough that we borrow from Red China to pay for it and give the bill to our grandkids?” asked Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “We haven’t got this message through to the country yet, but we have a real problem.”

Mr. Rogers acknowledged that the Republican plan makes substantial cuts but said such reductions are necessary. The Republican proposal, he added, “bites the bullet,” while Mr. Obama’s budget simply offers more of the same spending increases seen over the past three years.

The Obama proposal also seeks to tackle ever-rising college tuition costs by punishing institutions that raise rates year after year. If adopted, it would tie the more than $1 billion in federal money for campus work-study programs to tuition levels, and universities that reduce costs would get a bigger slice of the pie. Those that continue to increase tuition would get less.

“Some [colleges] are being very responsible. Others are not. We just want to incentivize the good actors,” Mr. Duncan said. “Whatever we do with [increasing] Pell Grants it just won’t be enough” without other ways to push schools to lower costs.

Mr. Duncan rejected claims that, by continuing to increase total Pell Grant spending each year, the federal government has allowed universities to increase tuition with few consequences, as an increasing number of students depend heavily on taxpayer-funded grants and loans to make it through school.

Pell spending, which offers awards on the basis of financial need, has doubled under the Obama administration.

“How in the world can you deny a relationship between Pell Grants and the cost of education? I think that’s putting your head in the sand,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

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