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Duncan Statement: Hearing on "Examining the Costs of Federal Overreach into School Meals"
As prepared for delivery.

Today, we will examine the costs associated with the recent reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs. We typically think of costs in terms of dollars and cents. However, as is often the case with federal laws and regulations, there is an additional cost that can’t be measured by any agency, bureaucrat, or budget office.

When it comes to the nation’s schools, that additional cost comes in the form of already scarce resources directed away from the classroom and energy spent complying with federal mandates instead of providing children with the quality education they need to succeed in life.

Here in our nation’s capital, we sometimes forget good intentions can lead to bad consequences. As members of the subcommittee charged with overseeing federal education policies, we must consider very carefully any regulation, law, or policy that leverages additional burdens on schools, potentially undermining their ability to educate children. That is why the action taken during the final days of the 111th Congress was so troubling and demands review.

Despite concerns raised by school administrators, taxpayers, a bipartisan coalition of state governors, and leaders of the nation’s school boards, the previous Democrat Majority pursued a massive and costly expansion of the federal government’s role in child nutrition.

The resulting law has put the Department of Agriculture in the business of determining the amount of calories, fat, and sodium students should consume in a given school day. The Agriculture Secretary is now telling schools the type of milk, vegetables, and grains that can and cannot be served in cafeterias. The law places greater federal control over wellness policies best left in the hands of state and local leaders.

As if this massive federal overreach wasn’t enough, the law also forces schools to charge families who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals more money for their children’s school meals. Let’s call this what it is: a tax hike on middle-class families.

Two years after implementation, the cost of a school breakfast may increase by more than 25 cents. The cost of a school lunch will have increased by more than 7 cents, an increase that exceeds any additional assistance the law provides schools. The total compliance costs will reach $6.8 billion by 2016, costs that will fall heavily on states and schools.

These aren’t numbers cooked up by conservative think tanks. The estimates come from the Department of Agriculture’s own analysis of the law and the regulations associated with it. The American Association of School Administrators has stated these extra costs “represent a direct unfunded mandate” imposed on state and local education agencies.

The recent child nutrition law is one more in a series of burdens placed on states and schools already strained by a tough economy. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 44 states and the District of Columbia are struggling with combined budget deficits of roughly $144 billion. These difficult fiscal challenges have already forced most states to make tough choices, and this expansion of federal child nutrition policies will exacerbate the challenges they face.

Let me be clear: We all want to combat child hunger and improve the health and well-being of low-income families. However, we should reject the false choice between our support of child nutrition and the critical need to rein in the size and cost of the federal government.

It is now our responsibility to examine the challenges and consequences this new law will bring to states and schools. We have a strong panel of witnesses that will help us to do just that.


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