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Arne Duncan Talks K-12 Cuts, Early Ed. at Senate Hearing

More than a year ago, Congress was able to stave off the worst of across-the-board cuts to education and pretty much every other federal program. But, next year, the cuts could kick back in full force, both for domestic and military programs. (More on the impact on K-12 programs from what's known as sequestration here.)

Members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending didn't discuss the sequestration cuts in serious detail during a hearing Thursday featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. But the education secretary took a practice run at what's likely to become a full-throated effort to stop the cuts, saying they would hurt efforts to help disadvantaged children catch up to their peers.  

"I'm convinced the best way for us to end the cycle of poverty is to give kids a world-class education," he said. "Achievement gaps are insidious." (That's not a new sentiment from Duncan, but it is a somewhat new line.)

But Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he wishes the Obama administration's budget, which calls for $70.7 billion for education, hadn't been so far out of line from what Congress had been projecting. 

"I was encouraged that the budget emphasizes funding for core education programs like Title I and [special education], " Shelby said. "I was glad to see you looking in that direction." But he added, "I'm concerned that we overreach into too many education issues. "

Duncan—and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who serves as the top Democrat on both the Senate education committee and this panel, which oversees K-12 spending—both talked about their love for early-childhood education. Duncan employed a new favorite anecdote on the topic: the fact that he was forced to tell Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican of Mississippi, that his state wasn't getting a preschool development grant, despite the great need in the state. 

That's not a new line for Duncan. And neither is another theme that surfaced at the hearing: the constant push-pull between competitive grants (think Race to the Top) and formula grants that go out to nearly every school district in the country (think Title I or special education).

Rural senators in particular have concerns. "I continue to hear concerns about the administration's competitive-grant programs," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. She asked him to "talk about how you can ensure that states like New Hampshire that may not rank so well" when it comes to securing competitive grants can get resources for improving in areas like reading. 

Duncan told her that the vast majority of the resources in the department's budget go to formula grants. And he changed the subject a bit, praising the Granite State for its work on local assessments.

It's unclear which of the Obama administration's competitive grants will survive the president's tenure. Race to the Top has already been eliminated, but the administration has made pitch after pitch to save the Investing in Innovation program, which was funded at about $120 million last year and helps scale up promising practices at the district level. As he has in speeches lately, Duncan told the committee the i3 program has thousands of applicants and has only been able to fund a handful.

Maybe the most entertaining exchange, as far as these things go, was between Duncan and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who is the top Democrat on the full appropriations committee.

Mikulski is a huge fan of the Javits Gifted and Talented program, a tiny program funded at less than $10 million, which the Obama administration has put on the chopping block in its budgets. Mikulski has put the funding right back in, partly because the grants benefit programs in the Old Line State.

Mikulski brought up the Javits program and then asked Duncan, point blank, "Do you even know what I'm about? ... That's not an argumentative question," she said. "These children are a national resource. Where are we on the Javits program? Why did you cut it? ...  You took it from $10 million to $9 million for the whole country. We could use that on just the Delmarva peninsula," she said, referring to a patch of land on the East Coast that includes portions of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Duncan told her that it's unfortunate that things like sequestration force him to choose between a range of worthy programs whether it's early education or "the Jarvis gifted and talented program"

"Javits!" Mikuluski corrected. "Tell me what you would do to help these children...what is the identification of need? Or do you even know?"  

Duncan had said he'll miss working with Mikulski when she retires from the Senate at the end of her term. 

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