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REAL PROGRESS: Duncan Touts Increases in High School Graduation and College Enrollment Rates While Defending Obama’s Education Budget Before House Education and the Workforce Committee

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“Without question, the president’s budget for the Department of Education has exploded over the last five years,” Kline said.

During a May 21 hearing before the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed President Obama’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and highlighted progress in student outcomes, including the highest high school graduation rate in three decades and increased college enrollments among students of color.

In his opening statementHouse Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said the committee will “soon renew” its efforts to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—and asked Duncan for the administration’s leadership on the legislation. Kline set a goal of having a bill to the president for his signature “before the end of the 113th Congress,” which is in January 2015.

Kline also discussed what he said was a “staggering” increase in President Obama’s education budget combined with no real progress in education outcomes. He noted that the president’s budget request for ED includes $71 billion in discretionary funding and another $25.8 billion in mandatory funding split between Pell Grants ($7 billion), reforms to the teaching profession ($17.5 billion), and a new universal preschool program ($1.3 billion).

“Without question, the president’s budget for the Department of Education has exploded over the last five years,” Kline said. “The roughly $60 billion spent by the department in 2009 seems almost reasonable by comparison. Yet despite the significant increase in education spending, we haven’t seen any measurable improvements in student performance or graduation rates.”

In his testimony, Duncan rebutted Kline’s claim that no measurable improvements have been made in education. “While the progress is not fast enough—we have a long way to go—the honest answer is there has been real progress,” Duncan said. “High school graduation rates are at their highest level in over three decades, and for the first time in a long time we’re actually on track to a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020.”

Duncan also noted that the number of “dropout factories,” or high schools that graduate less than 60 percent of their students, is on the decline, resulting in 700,000 fewer children attending these schools. “That’s a big step in the right direction,” Duncan said. “Those young people now have a much better chance of not just graduating but then going on to some form of higher education.”

Duncan said the number of Pell Grant recipients has increased from 6 million in 2008 to 9.4 million in 2010—a more than 50 percent increase—and enrollment rates of students of color are also on the rise. Specifically, the percentage of Hispanic students attending college has increased from 22 percent in 2000 to 32 percent today; among African American students, 38 percent attend college today compared to 30 percent in 2000. “In a country that’s becoming majority-minority, this is the face of our country as we move forward. So real progress there,” Duncan said.

In his opening statementU.S. Representative George Miller (D-CA), the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, noted several big transitions in education, including new academic standards and assessments, new accountability and school improvement systems, and teacher and principal evaluations. At the same time, however, Miller said he “fear[s]” that students and parents have “lost a federal partner,” creating an “uncertain environment” due to Congress’s inability to reauthorize ESEA and the threat of budget proposals that would “drastically” cut education funding.

“As reported just last week, the Department of Education is facing a nearly 20 percent reduction in funding on top of the cuts already made through sequestration,” Miller said. In contrast, Miller noted that the U.S. House of Representatives was prepared to pass military budgets “with improvements” so that the cuts fall on education. “For each of the past two years, Republicans have released budgets filled with giveaways to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of educating our nation’s children,” Miller said. “This year isn’t any different. In March, Republicans put forth a budget that not only keeps in place the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration but actually calls for even more draconian cuts in education programs across the country.”

While praising President Obama’s budget for “[recognizing] education as an investment and not an expense,” Miller also said he has “serious concerns” about ED’s decisions to grant waivers from certain requirements under NCLB and how states are implementing the waivers they have received. Specifically, Miller said some states were “lessening their focus” on the performance of certain groups of students, weakening the impact of performance targets, and moving away from graduating students with a regular diploma in a reasonable amount of time.

Miller also seemed to have a different opinion on whether the Congress could finish a rewrite of NCLB in accordance with Kline’s timetable. “I wish we did not need to discuss the waiver renewals,” Miller said. “I wish we were working in a bipartisan fashion to renew this law, the way we have done for many, many years over the history of the law. It’s the only way we could get a bill to the president’s desk and signed into law. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that we’re on that track.”

Kline shared Miller’s concerns with the waiver process but said he recognized the “importance of freeing states and school districts from the law’s outdated metrics and regulations.” The vehicle for granting that freedom, however, should be a “full reauthorization of the law, not executive fiat,” Kline stressed.

Significant portions of the hearing were devoted to congressional action designed to limit an increase in student loan interest rates and President Obama’s proposal to expand access to free, public preschool education for four-year-old children.

Video of the hearing is available at http://edworkforce.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=333592.

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