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Duncan Brings Obama Agenda to Congress

President Barack Obama’s goals of more college financial aid and an end to high school “dropout factories” will significantly increase opportunities for minority students, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Congress on Wednesday.

In his first Capitol Hill appearance to outline the administration’s agenda, Duncan told members of the House Education and Labor Committee that proposed new investments in Pell Grants, campus-based Perkins Loans and work-study will help low-income students attend college. “We have to make college more affordable,” he said.

Another key Obama goal is that the U.S. lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020. To support that aim, Duncan said, the administration is proposing an additional $17 billion to raise the maximum Pell Grant while work-study would receive an extra $200 million. Perkins Loans would increase from $1 billion to $6 billion.

While the message drew a warm reception on Capitol Hill, members raised some additional issues.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chair of the House postsecondary education subcommittee, reminded Duncan of the major role played by minority-serving colleges and universities. While accounting for less than one-third of all postsecondary institutions, they enroll more than half of the minority students in U.S. higher education, he said.

Some MSI organizations have concerns about the 2010 Obama education budget. Despite its financial aid provisions, the budget would end the large short-term funding increases for these colleges that were authorized by Congress for 2008 and 2009.

While not specifically addressing the MSI funding issue, Duncan said low-income students and students of color stand to benefit from major elements of the Obama agenda such as the large increases for Pell and K-12 education as well as a new program of college completion grants.

“If we can put money in there year after year, students will know the funding will be there for them to attend college,” the secretary said.

Under questioning from House Republicans, Duncan defended his plans to end student loan subsidies to banks, saying the move would free up billions for higher education. Converting all student loans to the government’s Direct Loan program would save up to $90 billion in a decade, he said. “We want to move out of the business of subsidizing banks,” he said.

By transferring these savings to student aid, “We can help students for decades,” he added.

The secretary also outlined an ambitious goal for K-12 education, promising to turn around 1,000 low-performing schools each year for the next five years. This action is particularly critical for students of color, he said, since 20 percent of the nation’s public schools produce about 75 percent of the nation’s minority dropouts.

“We must act with a sense of urgency,” he said. “We have to work with these dropout factories and do something dramatically different for these students.”

Another element of the Obama agenda is the “Race to the Top” fund, or competitive grants to states to speed up education reform efforts. To work with low-income children as early as possible, the administration’s budget also would provide $800 million for new early childhood education programs, including $500 million through the government’s Title I program.

The budget is “a comprehensive plan,” he said, “that meets the educational needs of our youngest citizens from cradle to career.”

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