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Senators to Arne Duncan: Stop Flat-Funding Key K-12 Programs

Washington
The Obama administration has been a big fan of using competitive grants to drive its agenda on everything from teacher quality to standards to "personalized learning," much to the chagrin of some advocates for school districts.

So far, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have resisted that strategy. But Democrats in the U.S. Senate have continued to finance the administration's favorite competitive-grant programs, such as Race to the Top, although not always at the level the administration has sought.

Meanwhile, formula grants that go out to just about every school district—Title I grants to districts and special education—have been virtually flat-funded in Senate appropriations bills. And typically, the Senate approach has prevailed. (Possibly thanks to administration support?)

But Democratic senators who oversee K-12 spending may be rethinking this strategy since President Barack Obama's re-election. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panel that deals with K-12 spending, has already made it clear he's none too happy with the administration's decision to ask for level funding for formula programs, while seeking big increases for competitive grants.

He reiterated that today when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before the Senate subcommittee that oversees spending for the U.S. Department of Education.

"I would have liked to see a higher priority on Title I and [special education state grants]," he said. "These are the two cornerstones of federal support for education, but they're basically flat-funded in the President's budget."

Harkin found lots of bipartisan support for his position. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who is in the very powerful position of overseeing the full appropriations committee, said she was disappointed with the flat formula funding. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said small districts in his largely rural state simply don't have the resources to apply for these grants, a perennial congressional criticism of the competitive grants.

And Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Republican on the K-12 spending panel, went as far as to say as he didn't think that Duncan was taking Congress' unhappiness with competitive grants seriously.

"It sounds like you think our concerns are unjustified," he said.

In response to the lawmakers, Duncan noted that formula funds still make up the vast majority of the department's budget, and that competitive grant funding hasn't increased more than a couple percentages during his tenure. He also said the president's budget gets rid of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. So, if lawmakers enact it, they are really giving school districts a 5 percent increase over fiscal year 2013. (I'm not sure district advocates—or the lawmakers'—bought that argument.)

Student loan interest rates were also a major flashpoint. Interest rates on federally backed student loans are slated to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent a couple of months from now. (This might sound familiar. Last year, rates were also expected to double, but Congress passed a one-year extension of the current, 3.4 percent rate, thanks in part to presidential election politics.)

This year, the administration has proposed switching from a fixed rate to a rate tied to market forces, without any kind of cap to protect students if interest rates soar. The administration wants to expand so-called income-based repayment programs, which limit the amount of money graduates have to pay each month on their student loans.

This hasn't gone over so well with folks in the president's own party—Harkin made it clear at a hearing yesterday that he's not a fan of that idea. And neither are advocates for students, even though they acknowledge that the president's plan would be a better deal in the short term, while interest rates remain at historic lows.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee, is on roughly the same page as the administration. He told Duncan that he thinks a market-based rate is the right way to go.

"Today's students shouldn't be paying more than they should, and then, in the future taxpayers wouldn't be subsidizing more than they should," he said at the Senate appropriations panel hearing. And he wants Congress to come up with a long-term solution, instead of a series of short-term fixes. "I would recommend that we get to work pretty quickly and see if we can avoid that year-to-year trauma for students" ideally before rates double this year, he said.

Another really interesting tidbit? After the hearing, I asked Harkin which legislative vehicle he might want to use to enact the president's proposal to expand preschool, or some similar early-childhood education expansion. His answer? The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. "We're trying," he told me.

Inside-the-Beltway edu-nerds: Could an ESEA bill with a big preschool expansion—especially one that's tied to a tax increase on tobacco products—gain enough GOP support? For that matter, could a bill that ties some Title I money to vouchers (something Rep. Eric Cantor, the Majority Leader, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, the education chairman have said they'd like to do) get much Democratic love? (And does it even matter, since most folks inside-the-Beltway don't see this bill going anywhere anytime soon anyway, at least according to this helpful poll?)

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