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DUNCAN OUTLINES OBAMA’S EDUCATION BUDGET BEFORE HOUSE AND SENATE APPROPRIATIONS SUBCOMMITTEES

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“I want to support the administration and its education priorities but not at the expense of reliable and predictable federal support for thousands of school districts across the country that depend on that funding, and I confess I find troubling the one and a half billion dollars or 10 percent cut in basic Title I grants that you provide for in your budget in order to finance these new initiatives.”

Less than one third of teachers believe that schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards, graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards, according to a national survey of public high school teachers and principals who say that at least a few students drop out of their school and fail to complete their high school education each year. This belief flies in the face of an earlier survey of high school dropouts, in which two thirds of dropouts said they would have worked harder if more were demanded of them.  On the Front Lines of Schools, a report presenting the results from teachers and principals, says this “expectations gap” between teachers and students must be narrowed if efforts to close the achievement gap are to be successful.

On June 3, in appearances before the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over funding for the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined key aspects of President Obama’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 budget request and discussed how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) would serve the dual role of creating and preserving jobs while also promoting school reforms. However, Duncan also faced pointed questions from key Democrats on several of President Obama’s budget proposals, including one that would shift $1.5 billion in Title I funding into School Improvement Grants.

During his testimony before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Duncan explained that the president’s budget would support children from cradle to career while also moving the nation toward the president’s goal of having the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Duncan also highlighted the need to turn around low performing schools as one of President Obama’s key priorities. “We know that too many of our schools are letting our children down,” he said. “In too many places achievement is low and not improving. For example, in approximately two thousand high schools, 60 percent of the entering freshman class will drop out by the time they’re supposed to be seniors. That collective loss of human potential and the long-term negative impact on our economy are both staggering.”

As part of ARRA, Duncan said that the U.S. Department of Education asked states to identify the bottom five percent of their schools. Under the president’s budget request, states would receive $1.5 billion under the Title I School Improvement Program to fix these schools. When combined with the $3 billion the program received in ARRA and the $545 million in FY 2009, states will have more than $5 billion to help turn around low-performing schools. He added that these resources have a “strong focus” on dropout prevention and the so-called dropout factories.

“The dropout rate for the nation is approximately 30 percent, so it’s a problem that plagues every community, urban, rural, suburban,” Duncan said. “If we don’t do something about this dropout crisis over the next decade, the loss to our country will be $3 trillion. So the economic impact beyond the loss of human potential is something we absolutely have to come to grips with.”

Duncan also stressed the need to improve the quality of the nation’s teachers and identified it as another of the president’s key priorities. “In other countries, the top third of college graduates enter the teaching force,” Duncan said. “Unfortunately, too often here in the United States, our best college graduates choose other professions. We need to change the way we promote and compensate teachers so that we can attract the best and brightest into the profession by rewarding excellence and providing supports that enable success.”

To help improve the quality of teachers and the support they receive, President Obama’s budget would provide $517 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), including $30 million for a national teacher recruitment campaign. Duncan said the core strategies behind the TIF are “innovative professional development and compensation systems,” but he stressed that grants awarded under the program would be for cooperative efforts between districts and teachers. “The president has often said that he believes changes to the teaching profession should be made by working with teachers, not by doing things to teachers,” Duncan added. “The chance for real collaboration here is remarkable.”

Duncan acknowledged the pushback that he has received on Obama’s proposed cuts to Title I and special education in his FY 2010 budget, but stressed that the budget request was meant to build on the foundation provided by ARRA. “I would like to note that both of these programs didn’t receive the increases they otherwise might have in the fiscal year 2010 request because of the amount of money provided in the Recovery Act and the period of availability,” Duncan said. “We hope to resume our commitment to funding increases for these programs once the stimulus money has expired. In the short term, we need increased funding for school turnaround efforts. The students attending these schools cannot afford to wait. We are in crisis.”

In an exchange with Duncan, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed concern with the cut to Title I, not necessarily for this year and next year, but for when the stimulus money runs out. “The problem with that is you cut the base. And you said that we’re going to resume a commitment to this funding after the Recovery Act money runs out. But if we cut the base this year, then as we move into next year, you’ve got to make that up, plus an increase. And that’s what I’m concerned about.”

In response, Duncan explained that he wanted to target the $1.5 billion from Title I on the schools that have historically struggled. “I worry tremendously about our national dropout rate,” Duncan said. “It’s a 30 percent dropout rate. … A couple decades ago … there were jobs out there for students who didn’t have a high school diploma, [but today] there are no good jobs out there without a minimum of a high school diploma. … We can identify the two thousand high schools that are producing half of our nation’s dropouts and 75 percent of our minority [dropouts]. … What I want to do is target that Title 1 money, to really take this challenge on and not just keep perpetuating the status quo.”

Later that afternoon, Duncan also took heat for the shift in Title I funds from Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) during an appearance before the House Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. In his opening statement, Obey expressed reservations about cutting Title I while funding new investments for early childhood education, new reading initiatives, an expansion of the innovation fund, and increased funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which, as Obey pointed out, has yet to undergo any rigorous evaluation even though the program began four years ago.

“I want to support the administration and its education priorities but not at the expense of reliable and predictable federal support for thousands of school districts across the country that depend on that funding, and I confess I find troubling the one and a half billion dollars or 10 percent cut in basic Title I grants that you provide for in your budget in order to finance these new initiatives,” Obey said.

Turning to ARRA, Obey contemplated whether it was realistic to expect states and school districts to meet the reform components outlined in the bill if budget difficulties were forcing them to use funds to plug budget gaps and avoid layoffs. “I think it’s legitimate to question whether it’s realistic to also expect [states and school districts] to implement dramatic new reforms until the economic situation stabilizes,” he said. “I don’t want to set them up for failure in the public eyes, because they can’t do two things at the same time because of the extreme economic collapse that we’ve seen in the country, and so I would hope that you would take that to heart in the way that you administer the funds under your control.”

Duncan also encountered resistance from Harkin and Obey on Obama’s proposal to move the Pell Grant program from a discretionary program to a mandatory one and index the increase in the maximum grant amount to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) plus 1 percent every year. “The maximum grant has not kept up with the rising cost of college tuition,” Duncan said. “By making the Pell Grant program mandatory and indexing annual increases to the CPI, we are ensuring that students will know that their Pell Grant will increase at the same rate as their tuition.”

Harkin said that he “didn’t have a closed mind” on the proposal, while Obey pointed out that indexing the maximum award could have a “reverse effect” that would put a ceiling on the amount of future increases.

Watch video of the June 3 Senate hearing at http://appropriations.senate.gov/webcasts.cfm. Visithttp://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2009/06/06032009.html to read Duncan’s prepared testimony.

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