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U.S. Senate Budget Committee Quizzes Duncan on Waivers, Spending

Guest post by Andrew Ujifusa

In a relatively drama-free U.S. Senate Budget Committee hearing on President Barack Obama's fiscal 2015 request for education spending, lawmakers on Tuesday discussed waivers from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act as well as early-childhood education and overall spending levels with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Unlike late last month, when Duncan faced hostile declarations about his NCLB waiver moves from lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, the only significant exchange Duncan had with the Senate budget committee about waivers was with Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa whose state does not have a waiver from the NCLB law. (Duncan's department rejected Iowa's waiver proposal back in 2012, the first state to be turned down for a waiver.)

Grassley told Duncan that he was concerned about Iowa's course without such a waiver. He said he didn't think the federal education department was giving his home state enough guidance in how to meet the mandates of the federal education law, which is about seven years overdue for a reauthorization.

"I think you've been a little bit vague," Grassley told Duncan.

The secretary pointedly disagreed, however, saying that Grassley should check in with Iowa state officials as to how they're proceeding without an NCLB waiver, and added, "We've had to step in due to Congress' dysfunction," referring to lawmakers' inability to get the federal education law reauthorized.

Interestingly, the committee member with perhaps the most immediate and glaring grievance with the federal department, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, didn't make a huge issue of Duncan's department's decision to yank the state's NCLB waiver last month. Murray, the budget committee chairwoman, briefly raised the state's loss of its NCLB waiver in her opening remarks, saying it concerned her because of its potential impacts on schools and teachers: "I'm very disappointed by the loss of this waiver."

But during her question-and-answer session with Duncan, she neglected to mention the state's loss of its waiver at all. 

Duncan also discussed the overall budget request from Obama with ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican of Alabama. He peppered the secretary with remarks about how the fiscal 2015 budget request was too large and overstepped the boundaries of the two-year budget deal negotiated several months ago by Murray, along with U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. 

Duncan, meanwhile, emphasized the benefits of the early-learning initiatives included in the president's budget, as well as its stress on closing opportunity gaps.

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