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Stand-Off Over Spending Levels for Federal Education Programs Begins

The battle over whether and how to avoid across-the-board federal spending cuts known as "sequestration" was front and center Wednesday during the first appropriations committee hearing on President Barack Obama's fiscal 2016 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education.

"The president has made clear that he will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan while defending the budget request before the House committee responsible for setting spending levels for federal education programs.

Overall, the president wants $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over fiscal 2015 levels.

You can read more about the specific spending pitches here, but the main thing to remember is that the president asked for the sun, the moon, and the stars, most of which he isn't likely to receive from this newly minted, Republican-controlled Congress.

So why did he even try?

Well, the increase for education—and other domestic programs—was the administration's first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that's likely to dominate budget talks all year long: whether or not to adhere to the spending levels set by sequestration. Congress was able to come up with a temporary deal to alleviate the cuts for both military programs and domestic ones, like education. But that deal expires this fall, and then the across-the-board 8 percent cuts kick back in full force.

Like clockwork, the issue reared its head as the House begins its work to draft budgets for the dozen federal agencies.

"As the Joint Chiefs and others have outlined, [sequestration-level spending] would damage our national security," Duncan said. "It would also damage our economy in the near-term and long-term by preventing progrowth investments in many areas, including efforts to ensure that all students are prepared for college and career."

Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., called the looming spending battle "the elephant in every appropriations hearing right now," but he didn't entirely disagree with Duncan.

Instead, Cole, who was part of the 2013 budget negotiations that helped avert the full force of the sequester cuts, said he hoped lawmakers would soon begin a new round of negotiations, though he wasn't overly optimistic.

"I would encourage those above my pay grade ... to start talking sooner," said Cole. "But for congressmen, deadlines are like alarm clocks."

Until then, he said, the sequester is "the law of the land."

Here's what Cole had to say:

"The grim reality is that sequester is indeed the law of the land. It's not a policy or a choice; it's the law. I'm not convinced we can get out of it by the time we mark up these bills. However, I continue to hope for a budget deal ... so that hopefully we can have a more realistic allocation when the time comes. But absent negations at a higher levels, sequester is where we're at." 

Taking Cole's insight into account, Duncan said that the most important investment appropriators can make is in early-childhood education. The president's budget request includes a $500 million increase for the Preschool Development Grant program, bringing it $750 million.

Meanwhile, the ranking member on the committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., continued to push back on the administration's use of competitive grants, as well as policies pushed by the administration through waivers, such as teacher evaluations based on student test scores.

DeLauro, who has made similar critiques of the president's budget request in the past, noted that several studies show that teachers account for only 1 percent to14 percent of the variability in test scores, and argued that ranking teachers by value-added model "can have negative consequences."

Duncan pushed back on the notion, saying that he and his staff always emphasized that using students' test scores should be one of many variables that go into teacher evaluations.

"To be very clear, we have never advocated ranking teachers by test scores," he said.

As for competitive grants, Duncan pointed out that the overwhelming majority of the budget proposal is steered into formula-based programs. Just 8.4 percent was proposed for competitive programs, he said.

"Having said that, having a piece of our budget spur innovation and support innovation we think makes tremendous sense," Duncan added. "In every place we're doing this, there is tremendous unmet demand. If we were trying to sell something no one is buying I would listen to that very closely."

Lawmakers also highlighted a variety of other issues in the budget, including the decision to level fund Impact Aid and to sunset the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, as well as the president's community college proposal and committment TRIO programs.

Wednesday's congressional hearing is the first of several at which Duncan will testify and defend the president's fiscal 2016 budget request. He is slated to appear before the Senate appropriations committee in April. 

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