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Rhetoric vs. Reality: Education Priorities in the Administration's FY 2013 Budget

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will testify before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce on the president’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request for the Department of Education. If the secretary’s recent appearance in front of the House Appropriations Committee is any indication, we can expect to hear a lot of rhetoric on the administration’s preferred education policies. But does that rhetoric match the reality facing schools and students? Let’s take a look:

Rhetoric: The Obama budget provides “continued support for programs designed to leverage change and improvement in our education system, as well as reductions in lower-priority activities.”

Reality: The Obama budget defaults on previous commitments to underprivileged and special needs students.

Instead of making tough choices to ensure taxpayer dollars are used to meet our commitments to students, the administration’s budget proposal chooses to fund more pet projects and unnecessary programs. In his FY 2013 budget blueprint, the president significantly expands the Race to the Top competition, granting the Secretary of Education sole discretion over a $1.8 billion slush fund. Additionally, the president requests $4 billion over five years for the department to implement the Community College to Career Fund, $30 billion in new teacher programs, and $30 billion over four years for federal school construction.

Meanwhile, the president’s budget proposal decreases funding for "lower-priority activities" – i.e., important education initiatives that students and families need, zeroing out funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which helps provide low income families in the nation’s capital an opportunity for a better education. His proposal also shortchanges the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B program, reducing the federal government’s share of support for students with disabilities.

Rhetoric: The Obama budget “improve[s] the productivity of our education systemand encourage[s] reform and innovation.”

Reality: The Obama budget hamstrings state and local reform by dramatically expanding the federal government’s role in education.

Instead of working with Congress to rewrite the nation’s K-12 education law, the president’s budget creates new, unauthorized education programs that place additional requirements on states and school districts. Programs such as Race to the Top and the Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund empower the administration to pile additional requirements on states in the name of “reform.” Add in the department’s conditional waivers scheme, which grants waivers to states that agree to adopt the secretary’s preferred policies, and the administration’s backdoor power grab is clear.

Committee Republicans understand the urgent need to revamp and improve elementary and secondary education law to reduce federal intervention in classrooms, provide states and schools true flexibility, and help schools recruit and retain better educators.  The committee recently approved the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990). Together, these bills will change the status quo and revive innovation in schools.

Rhetoric: The Obama budget “improve[s] affordability and quality in higher education” by extending the lower Stafford Loan interest rate for one year.

Reality: The Obama budget plays a shell game with interest rates, temporarily dropping one type of loan interest rate in exchange for permanently raising another.

In July, undergraduate students will see their subsidized Stafford Loan interest rates double, thanks to a poorly conceived legislative initiative advanced by Democrats in 2007 that temporarily phased the interest rate down over four years. In an effort to delay the rate increase, the president has proposed maintaing the 3.4 percent rate for one additional year. As Secretary Duncan told the Appropriations Committee, “it would be inappropriate to raise rates and burden students with greater debt.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimates extending the low Stafford Loan interest rate for one year will cost as much as $6 billion, and in these times of trillion-dollar deficits, that money isn’t easy to come by. And while the administration pays lip service to the importance of lowering student loan interest rates, hidden in the president’s budget is a separate request to raise the interest rate on a different student loan program. That’s right, in his FY 2013 budget request, the president proposes to turn Perkins Loans into an unsubsidized Direct Loan, and raise the interest rate on a loan that was originally designed to help the neediest students.

Strip out the rhetoric, and it becomes clear the administration’s budget blueprint will only pile additional costs and uncertainty on schools, students, and taxpayers. When Secretary Duncan testifies in front of the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Wednesday, we hope he'll drop the double-talk and discuss the real consequences of the president's proposed policies and priorities for the Department of Education.

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