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Education Funding

Senators Grill Duncan on Obama’s Budget Proposal

By Alyson Klein — June 03, 2009 4 min read
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A key U.S. senator told Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this morning that he’s not a fan of the Obama administration’s proposal to shift $1 billion out of Title I grants for districts into the Title I school improvement program.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education, said that he’s worried about reducing the level for the Title I program, which was financed at $14.5 billion in fiscal year 2009, but is slated for $13 billion in fiscal 2010, will make it harder to maintain the program’s funding in future years.

Harkin acknowledged that the program got a $10 billion one-time boost over two years under the stimulus package, but he said he’s worried about the impact of the proposal after the stimulus funding goes away.

“For this year and next year, things are fine,” Harkin said. “Obviously we’re looking at what happens when the recovery funds go out. You can say well, this is okay because we have all this money in the recovery act. But the problem with that is, you cut the base. If you cut the base this year, you have to make all that up” in fiscal year 2011.

Duncan, who was testifying before the committee on the administration’s budget, said he’s committed to keeping appropriations for the Title I program up going forward. And he used his new favorite line on the school improvement funding, saying it would train a “laser-like focus” on the schools that are struggling. But it didn’t sound to me like Harkin was buying that argument.

And another Obama proposal looks like it’s going to be a tough sell with some committee Democrats: the mega-increase for the Teacher Incentive Fund program. Obama’s budget seeks to boost funding for the TIF, which doles out grants for pay-for-performance programs from $97 million in fiscal year 2009 to $487.3 million in fiscal year 2010. That major hike would come on top of $200 million for the TIF in the stimulus.

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked Duncan whether he could point to any studies that demonstrate the TIF’s effectiveness.

Duncan kind of tap-danced on that one, talking about his very positive experience with a TIF grant in Chicago. He said the grants only went to schools where 75 percent of teachers said they wanted them.

But Murray didn’t sound assuaged. While she said the program’s purpose “sounds good when [Duncan] says it,” she wants to make sure there are safeguards in place to make sure that the money isn’t used for programs that give out “subjective rewards” to educators. She said she’s particularly worried because the program has never been authorized by Congress.

Duncan said the grants wouldn’t go to schools that “pit teachers against each other” and said he’d work with Murray on his plan for the program. Still, that exchange has me wondering whether the Obama administration will get the full increase it is seeking for the fund.

Harkin also expressed some skepticism about the administration’s proposal to shift the Pell Grant program from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the ledger, where it wouldn’t be subject to the whims of the appropriations process (and incidentally, not under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction).

“There are reasons on both sides,” Harkin said. “There a lot of others ways that we can make sure that kids keep up their grades and keep up the work” to get a college education.

And it doesn’t sound like Harkin was too thrilled with Duncan’s suggestion that he would consider whether a state has caps on the number of charter schools in doling out the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding.

“Are charter schools a litmus test?” Harkin asked.

But Harkin and Duncan were on the same page on a very technical issue dealing with the implementation of the special education money in the stimulus act. (My colleague, Christina Samuels did a good job of explaining this tough-to-understand issue in this story.)

Duncan said he wasn’t allowing districts that hadn’t been meeting the needs of special education students to use the money for other purposes.

“Right on,” Harkin said.

And Harkin voiced support for some of the new programs included in the president’s budget, including a $50 million initiative to overhaul high schools and an $800 million investment in early-childhood education. And both Harkin and Duncan are on the same page when it comes to a longer school year. (Harkin suggested 11 months, Duncan suggested 12.)

Harkin also said he would seek to include some money for school facilities in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill. That could mean one or more of Obama’s priorities may be scrapped or reduced to make room for a facilities program.

And the proposal is likely to spark another debate in Congress over whether the feds should be in the business of paying for school facilities. If you recall, both the House and Senate’s original versions of the stimulus bill included significant money for school facilities, but the program was jettisoned to earn the support of some moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

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