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Lawmakers Clash Over Pell Grant Squeeze

Pell Grants were the elephant, gorilla, pick-your-large-animal-cliche in the room when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified Wednesday before the Senate panel that oversees K-12 spending.

The grants have become an issue in talks over just how to raise the debt ceiling before the nation goes into default Tuesday. Demand for Pell has soared in recent years as more and more students seek higher education, and as the shaky economy results in more students qualifying for the grants, which are aimed at helping low-income students cover the cost of college.

The dueling plans for raising the debt ceiling, floated by Rep. John A. Boehner, the Speaker of the House, and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, each seek to put Pell on firmer fiscal footing, but only for two years. (For an excellent, non-partisan explanation of the debt ceiling and Pell, check out this blog post from the New America foundation.)

Pell is also an issue in the talks over the fiscal year 2012 budget for education, since it is eating up an ever-larger share of the U.S. Department of Education's nearly $70 billion budget. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the K-12 spending committee, admonished Duncan about runaway spending at the department. He said the department has requested a more than 20 percent increase in spending compared with two years ago.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the panel's chairman, pointed out that most of that money is Pell Grants.

"What's going on is, we've got a lot of people out of work," he said. "Most of this increase is because of the increased use of Pell grants. We have an increased use of Pell Grants because we have more poor people in this country. ...We have a choice to make: Do we cut these kids off at the knees and say, 'You qualify, but you don't get the money?'"

In general, the department's signature education reform program, Race to the Top, got very little love from the committee.

Shelby said he was baffled at his home state of Alabama's low rating under the competition since, in his view, the state is a leader when it comes to math, science, and technology education.

I understand that education reform is never easy. However, it is made significantly more difficult when states must meet prescriptive requirements—in this case a de facto requirement for charter school legislation—to even compete for available funding. ... Instead, the department chose only states with charter schools as awardees. Despite its nationally recognized STEM program, a key component to our future workforce competing in a global economy, Alabama finished dead last in the latest round for Race to the Top funding.

Even Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from one of the dozen states that actually won the competition (Rhode Island), is not a huge fan. He'd rather see the money go to Literacy Through School Libraries, a $19 million program that got scrapped in the fiscal year 2011 budget, which eliminated more than a dozen education programs.

Hearing Blooper Reel Moment: Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., opined about how his home state doesn't get a very large share of Title I funds. He asked to see an evaluation of the department's Title I rewards program, which was proposed in its fiscal year 2012 budget to reward districts that do a great job closing the achievement gap. Duncan managed to stay professional and above board in telling Cochran he couldn't produce an evaluation for a program that doesn't exist yet.

Suggested Summer Reading: Teachers out there who think you could do a better job than Congress of figuring our way out of the debt mess? The Onion agrees with you!

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