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Lawmakers Grill Duncan on Spending, ESEA

If the administration was hoping that members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee would be aghast and run off to get cracking on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act when they heard U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's big news yesterday, they were disappointed.

Duncan told the committee that 82 percent of schools were on track to be labeled as failures this year under the No Child Left Behind law, the current iteration of ESEA. And he reiterated that the administration is trying to give states and schools much more flexibility to reach higher standards though its blueprint on reauthorization, unveiled a year ago.

But either lawmakers didn't have time to absorb the new data, or they were generally pretty non-plused by the figures. Whatever the reason, there were no questions on the data at all.

So what did lawmakers want to know? Well many Republicans, beginning with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the committee, reiterated their view that education spending doesn't necessarily lead to better student outcomes.

"We're paying more per kid, and we're not seeing any correlation between this spending and results," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy. "Why not just take away the bad spending?"

Duncan said the department is encouraging states to make smart choices about how to trim their budgets. "In very tough budget times, we have to make tough calls," he said. But he added that, compared to higher-performing countries, the United States "underinvests" in the most disadvantaged children.

Still, the spending theme continued.

"A lot of people are wondering why we even have a DOE," meaning the U.S. Department of Education. "Everything I'm looking at shows tremendous spending and then a flat line" on student achievement, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. "Where is the return on the investment?"

And one lawmaker, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., pointed out that the department's proposal to combine 38 programs into 11 funding streams doesn't actually reduce overall spending.

Still, in a quick interview after the hearing, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., told me he found the administration's figures on the number of schools not making adequate yearly progress under NCLB "astounding."

For their part, Democrats asked questions about the administration's proposal to cut Pell Grant aid. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said she hoped the department would put more of an emphasis on wrap-around services that help educate "the whole child."

And Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat, made it clear that he wants to move on reauthorization.

"I hope we could figure out how to get the trains on the tracks here," he said.

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