Obama's Education Budget Sees Some Pushback on Capitol Hill

Federal plans to reform failing schools and provide opportunities to students face questions.

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Congressmen are challenging some of the biggest programs in the fiscal 2010 education budget request that Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently outlined to Senate and House appropriations subcommittees.

President Obama's budget proposal asks for $46.7 billion in discretionary funding, or $1.3 billion more than the 2009 level.

The most pointed questions Duncan faced involved a shift of $1.5 billion in Title I funding—federally funded programs for schools with high percentages of students from low-income families—into the department's School Improvement Grants program, which targets historically struggling schools and attempts to turn them around. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, expressed concern about how the Title I cut might play out after $81 billion in federal education stimulus funding expires in two years.

On the issue of teacher quality, Obama's budget would provide $517 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund, including $30 million for a national recruitment campaign. Duncan described the core strategies behind the TIF as "innovative professional development and compensation systems," and he stressed that grants awarded under the program would be strongly rooted in cooperative efforts between districts and teachers.

Duncan, a strong supporter of merit pay for teachers, also is looking to use the School Improvement fund to reward states and districts that adopt high-impact innovations, which may include linking teacher pay to things other than test scores.

The Education Department also wants to expand financial aid and college access. But Duncan's proposals to move the Pell Grant program, which promotes college access for low-income students, from a discretionary program to a mandatory one and to index its maximum award to inflation plus 1 percentage point encountered some resistance.

The $10.4 billion, or 57 percent, increase in Pell Grant assistance, indexed to inflation, would for the first time guarantee low-income college students a stable grant amount. The shift would be paid for by eliminating $4 billion in annual subsidies to private banks that make student loans, the New York Times reports.

But one representative said that indexing the maximum award could have the "reverse effect" of putting a ceiling on the amount of future increases.

Duncan was also questioned about the feasibility of expecting schools to meet the reform components of the bill when the sluggish economy is making filling budget gaps and avoiding layoffs major priorities.

"I think it's legitimate to question whether it's realistic to also expect states and 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."

Video of the Senate hearing can be found here. Duncan's prepared testimony is available on the federal education department's website.

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