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House Panel Presses Arne Duncan on Loans, Waivers, Common Core

UPDATED

Studentloans are at the top of Congress' agenda this summer—and they were the number one topic when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified today before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget.

Last week, the panel approved a measure that would head off a proposed hike in student loan interest rates by tying student loan rates to the rate for the 10-year U.S. Treasury note, something the administration also proposed in its budget request. (There are also some key differences between the measures. For instance, the House Republican bill includes a cap of 8.5 percent on student interest rates, while the administration would instead expand income-based repayment so that graduates don't have to fork over a lot of their income to pay back student loans. More here.)

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee chairman, sees the proposals as essentially pretty similar. "I'd say our proposals are pretty close, and others agree," he said at the hearing.(He cited, for instance, this Washington Post editorial).

Meanwhile, committee Democrats (who didn't rush to cheer the president's proposal when it came out in April, ahead of the GOP plan) have largely disparaged the House Republican proposal. In fact, Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, has called it a "$4 billion tax on students" (a reference to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate that the plan would cut that much out of the loan program and redirect it to deficit reduction).

And some Democratic members of the committee, including Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, said they want to see loan rates extended at the current 3.4 percent level because Congress doesn't have enough time to work out a long-term solution before rates double on July 1. Some Senate Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Majority Leader, also back a short-term extension of the current rate, to give lawmakers enough time to negotiate a long-term fix.

The whole dynamic put Duncan in an awkward position. He walked a fine line in his comments—he didn't throw cold water on the Republican proposal, but he didn't give it a huge thumbs up either. Instead, he said he's not in favor of any proposal that would make college more expensive for students. And he's interested in a "long-term fix" on student loans and wants to work with Congress in the next month and a half to make that happen. (That runs counter to what some Senate Democrats are pushing.)

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the day after the hearing, the White House threatened to veto the House GOP student loan bill, in part because it does not include an expansion of income based repayment plans, and would direct money saved from a change in student loan rates to deficit reduction. Rep. Kline quickly fired back a statement saying that the House planned to move forward with the bill and disparaging the administration's "partisan" approach to the issue.

Waivers, Pre-K, Common Core

The administration's plan to offer states flexibility from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, which are in place in 37 states and the District of Columbia, took some bipartisan heat. Kline said he has made his concerns about the process "abundantly clear" and added that he doesn't think the law should be renewed by "executive fiat."

Miller, who is typically an administration ally on K-12 issues, was even more fiery. He is really worried that the administration's waivers shortchange students in particular subgroups (such as English-language learners) and allow states to water down requirements (for instance, by giving credit for GEDs). He's already let the administration know about these concerns, and today he said he wants the education secretary to keep them in mind when deciding whether to renew waivers.

"I urge you to hold a high bar for everyone and insist on changes where necessary," Miller said. "You must be the conscience of the nation, resisting the temptation to focus on what's good for adults rather than what's good for students." (Interesting to note: No one mentioned district waivers.)

Duncan also made a sales pitch for the administration's plan to significantly expand early-childhood education programs. The proposal seemed to have a lot of fans on the Democratic side of the aisle, including Miller. But Kline said he'd much rather see new money poured into special education, which he sees as a primary federal responsibility.

Duncan noted that there's a lot of interest among states—including from Republican governors—in expanding early-childhood education. He wants to travel the country trying to build a coalition in support of the administration's proposal.

It took 90 minutes for lawmakers to finally bring up the biggest thing happening in education policy these days: the Common Core State Standards. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., asked Duncan whether the federal government is trying to create a national curriculum.

Duncan took umbrage at the suggestion. "Let's not get caught up in hysteria and drama," he said. He noted that the Education Department is legally prohibited from putting in place a federal curriculum.

Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, the top Republican on the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, also asked about language in the administration's budget request that would provide $389 million in assessment grants to states that have adopted college- and career-ready standards. (Check out page 21 of the administration's budget request if you want to see it for yourself.) Rokita wanted to know if there any other set of college- and career-ready standards, besides common core. Yes, Duncan said. Both Virginia and Minnesota have college- and career-ready standards and aren't in common core. (Actually, Minnesota is a halfway state. It's adopted common core in language arts, but not math.)

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