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Duncan Defends Waivers, Competitive Grants to Congress

The clash between the Obama administration, which loves its signature Race to the Top and other grant programs, and folks in Congress who want to see a bigger investment in funding for special education and disadvantaged students, is clearly not going away anytime soon.

At a hearing today, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, hammered at U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for not proposing any sort of increase for special education, while continuing to pump money into competitive programs that don't go out to everyone.

Special education is a top funding priority for states, school districts, and school leaders, Kline said.

"It seems to me that the president is missing an opportunity here," he added. (This isn't new. Kline sent a letter along those lines to lawmakers overseeing education spending a few weeks ago.)

Quick recap: The administration is proposing to freeze funding at last year's levels for the big programs that go out to almost all school districts, the $14.5 billion Title I grants for disadvantaged students and $11.6 billion for special education, while asking for more money for programs such as Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhoods.

It isn't just Republicans who are unhappy with this. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, whose state actually got a coveted slice of the Race to Top funding, said that, with state cuts coming down the pike, it might have been more useful to see those dollars put into formula programs that go out to nearly every district.

Competitive, versus formula, was also a big theme of the discussion when Duncan
testified last week before the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending.

So it seems like this year is shaping up to be a rerun of last year, when House Republicans put big bucks behind Title I and special education, while slashing the Obama administration's favorite programs. Ultimately, the president prevailed in that budget battle, even though the Republicans have some education advocates on their team. The National School Boards Association, for instance, preferred the GOP bill.

But there's a possible twist this year: the presidential election.

It's obvious that there's not a lot of love, even among some Democrats, for Race to the Top, and other competitive programs. That means their fate probably hinges on what happens in November. If Obama isn't re-elected, some of those programs may never see another dime from Congress.

At today's hearing, Duncan explicitly warned lawmakers about the impact "sequestration", budget-geek speak for a series of across-the-board cuts, estimated to be as high as 9.1 percent and set to hit school districts next January, unless a broke-down Congress can somehow figure out a way to head them off.

Most folks don't expect that Congress will come to a compromise until after the presidential election. But that is not going to be very helpful for state and local education leaders, who are making their spending decisions for next year right now, Duncan said.

"Any responsible chief state school officer or governor is setting their budget now for the fall," Duncan said. "I desperately urge Congress not to wait to the last minute on sequestration."

There was also some discussion on the administration's plan to offer states waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for embracing certain reform priorities. Kline still doesn't think Duncan has the authority to do this. He pointed out that the waiver decisions are made by department staff and a panel of peer reviewers.

"It seems like an awful lot of control in your hands," Kline said.

And Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, asked whether the department would be willing to revoke a waiver from states that didn't live up to their promises when it comes to educating special populations, such as English-language learners.

Duncan said, essentially, that the Education Department would pull a waiver from a state didn't do what it said it would.

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