In his April 8 testimony before the U.S. House Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee on President Obama’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget request, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the president’s decision to fund new competitive grant programs while flat-funding formula grant programs such as Title I. Duncan stressed the need for high standards, but he said they did not need to be “common” and highlighted the president’s proposals to close achievement gaps, expand preschool access, support educators’ use of technology and data, and make college more affordable in order to ensure students can compete in a global economy.
“The fact is that we are falling further behind our international competitors educationally,” Duncan said. “We should recognize that as an urgent wake-up call. But we are sleeping through the alarm. In the U.S., we are still just talking about the steps many leading countries are actually taking to prepare their students for a competitive global economy. Falling behind educationally now will hurt our country economically for generations.”
Subcommittee members from both political parties pressed Duncan on Obama’s continued reliance on competitive grant programs. In his FY 2015 budget, Obama proposed a new Race to the Top–Equity and Opportunity initiative, which will focus on improving the academic performance of students in the nation’s highest-poverty schools, and would reserve a portion of funds from state formula grant programs, such as career and technical education and special education, for competitive awards. In response, Duncan noted that approximately 89 percent of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget goes to formula programs, compared to 11 percent that goes to competitive programs. He also said that providing larger grants to innovators for models that could be replicated would go further in the long run than spreading smaller amounts across the country.
“To spread $100 million across 15,000 school districts you get very, very little minimal impact,” Duncan said in defense of Obama’s proposal to reserve $100 million in special education grants to provide incentives for states to improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities. “But to put $100 million in some targeted places where people can create models for the rest of the country, we think that’s a way to start to change the culture and the conversation here.”
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) also received a lot of attention from subcommittee members during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, with subcommittee members and Duncan agreeing that standards should be high, but left to the states.
“I’m just a big proponent of high standards,” Duncan said. “And whether they’re common or not is sort of secondary. We just want students to be college and career ready once they graduate from high school. We partner with states that have been part of that effort. We partner with states that have done their own thing as long as they can demonstrate high standards.”
And when asked what percentage of federal grants is tied to a state’s acceptance of CCSS, Duncan did not mince words. “Zero,” he said. “What we ask is that if states demonstrate to us, basically saying if their local institution of higher education can say that students hitting this benchmark will not have to take remedial classes; that’s our bar. So we’re partnering [with] states from Texas to Alaska to Virginia to Minnesota that haven’t been part of [the CCSS]. As long as states are, again, not dummying things down, we want to work with them.”
Archived video from the hearing and Duncan’s complete testimony are available at http://appropriations.house.gov/calendararchive/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=374542.