WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended his department’s $48.8 billion funding request for FY2012 at a Senate Budget Committee hearing held Tuesday morning. The department is asking for a $2 billion, or 4 percent increase beyond the 2011 continuing resolution level, outside of Pell Grants.
“This proposed budget reflects our administration’s dual commitment to reduce spending and be more efficient while investing to secure our future. At the very top of the list of investments we must make is education,” Duncan told the panel. “It is the blanket of security for the middle class and the path out of poverty for millions of Americans who have been left behind my a changing economy.”
The higher education portion of the 2012 request includes a $67 million increase for TRIO programs for a total of $920 million; $323 million for GEAR UP; $651 million in combined discretionary and mandatory funding for Aid for Institutional Development programs at institutions that enroll large numbers of minority and disadvantaged students and $249 million in aid for Hispanic-Serving Institutions programs.
To preserve the $5,550 maximum Pell award, the department proposes to eliminate summer school grants and the interest subsidy for graduate student loans. According to Duncan, these steps would help close the program’s $20 billion shortfall and save $100 billion over the next decade.
“Those savings also mean that we can meet the skyrocketing demand for Pell grants, which has risen from less than 4 million grants in 2000 to a projected 9.6 million next year,” said Duncan, adding that there is a critical need to educate and graduate people who will be prepared to step into the millions of jobs in this country that go unfilled each year.
In his opening remarks, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee’s ranking member, said that he was “flabbergasted” by the budget proposal and pointed to it as an example of how detached Washington is from fiscal reality.
Over the past three years, we spent 68 percent more on education than the three years before that. This budget now calls for another 11 percent increase in federal spending for education,” Sessions said. “Sir, we don’t have the money.”
Sessions praised Duncan’s leadership and ideas, but also called for an increased scrutiny on why the nation’s education system falls so far below expectations. He said that the department should use the current funding crisis as an opportunity to conduct a thorough review of what’s working and what’s not.
“We need to trim our bloated government, and we need to start now. It goes without saying that the Education Department is not exempt,” Sessions said.
He also flatly rejected the department’s proposal to increase in Pell awards. “They’re not going to be increased that much because we don’t have the money,” said the Alabama lawmaker. He argued that the department needs to identify efficiencies that enhance education without driving up costs.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said that budget reflects some tough choices, but he, too, is concerned about the additional debt. Instead, Coons asked how the department would use the First in the World initiative and College Completion Incentive grants to improve post-secondary outcomes, particularly for minority and low-income students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. He specifically wanted to know what is so different about those programs and how they will help to close critical gaps.
Duncan said that like high schools, colleges and universities have varying rates of graduation success. He likened the two initiatives to a “mini race to the top at the higher education level for states and universities that want to build a culture that increases both access and attainment.”
For more information about the hearing, click here.