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Senate Budget Committee Discusses FY 2015 Budget for Department of Education

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HEARING BRIEF

 

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on LHHS Holds Hearing on the FY 2015 Budget for the Department of Education

 
Prepared by:
 
Washington Partners (wpllc@cur.org)
 
 
May 6, 2014
 
On Tuesday, May 6, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared before the Senate Budget Committee to defend President Obama’s FY 2015 spending plan for the Department of Education (ED). This was Secretary Duncan’s fourth visit to Capitol Hill to defend ED’s FY 15 budget.
 

Members Present

Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA); Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL); Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI); Roger Wicker (R-MS); and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Witnesses

  • The Honorable Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education

Opening Remarks

Chairwoman Murray praised both the Secretary and the budget plan in her opening statement, noting that at a time when college is becoming unaffordable, K-12 schools are struggling, adults are in need of far better job training assistance and our allies around the world are increasing their investment in education, the United States is falling behind. The achievement gap that exists for low-income and minority students creates an education deficit that they can never fill, according to Murray. Murray expressed disappointment in the cancellation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver for the state of Washington and urged the Secretary to find common ground with the state as quickly as possible. 
 
Ranking Member Sessions praised the progress made in Alabama to improve reading and math scores by improving instruction, not by allocating more funding. According to Sessions, more money does not improve learning. Sessions was highly critical of the President for proposing increased funding for ED, in particular the $50 billion special fund that Sessions insisted will not be approved. Given that the interest payment on the national debt approaches $850 billion annually, Sessions said, the best way to find more funding for education would be to pay off that debt or cut discretionary spending from other agencies.

Witness Statement

Secretary Duncan repeated his previous testimony, saying, in summary, that the education budget is aimed at closing achievement gaps, from birth through career. While U.S. student performance has been at a standstill, our competitors have been increasing their education spending and surpassing us at all levels. The U.S. is now 25th in enrollments in early education; 12th in college graduation; and in the middle of the pack in reading and math achievement.
 

Member Questions

Chairwoman Murray questioned the Secretary about a recent investigation into Sallie Mae regarding charging active military servicemen and women higher interest rates than is legal on student loans. She urged the Secretary to cancel a lucrative contract with Sallie Mae—that he recently signed—if the allegations prove true. Duncan said he was aware of the investigation and would keep her informed about its progress.
 
Senator Grassley asked the Secretary what he intended to do to help those states—like Iowa—that were not granted NCLB flexibility waivers when they fail to meet the 2014 proficiency deadline. Duncan said he has a strong working relationship with Iowa and the majority of other states, and the Department will remain vigilant about the support it offers. Grassley also asked if the states that dropped out of the Common Core State Standards would be allowed to turn to universities to affirm that they had implemented college and career ready standards. Secretary Duncan confirmed that possibility.
 
Senator Whitehouse said he had heard from a wide array of concerned educators and other school reform advocates in Rhode Island about the regulatory pressures on teachers and classrooms that were interfering with their ability to teach. He asked what Duncan was doing to address this concern. Duncan acknowledged that schools are hit by federal, state and district requirements that can be overwhelming and are often duplicative and unnecessary. He described ways the Department was attempting to streamline and otherwise modify their interactions with states to address this very real concern.
 
Senator Wicker questioned the Secretary about the recently released gainful employment regulations and asked why they did not apply to all degrees from all institutions, not just for-profit and community colleges. Wicker suggested that this was discriminatory against a sector that served as "a gateway to the middle class" for many students. Duncan replied that the intent of the regulations is to make sure all schools that purport to prepare students for the workplace actually do so and do not overburden vulnerable individuals with debt and no benefits. He said the comment period on the regulations is ongoing and the Department is sincerely looking for suggestions on how to help them achieve this goal.
 
Wicker also asked why ED was proposing a new federal early education program when 45 programs are already in existence. Duncan asked Wicker to look at this issue in terms of unmet need. If only a small percentage of students in Mississippi have access to early education programs then new investments are critical. The program is very popular with governors and State Chiefs, according to Duncan, and participation is not mandatory. Those who want the funds can apply and design programs that best meet their state needs, Duncan said.
 
Ranking Member Sessions turned again to the topic of the federal debt and argued against the suggestion by the Secretary that the Congress in recent years had starved the education budget, noting the 15 percent increase in funding since President Obama took office. At that point the hearing was adjourned for a vote on the Senate floor.
 

Conclusion and Additional Information

For more information about the hearing with written testimony and an archived webcast, go to: http://www.budget.senate.gov/democratic/public/index.cfm/hearings?ID=a5324924-7f2a-48ec-9520-e844b6739599.
 
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