WASHINGTON – Speaking before the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended President Obama’s budget Wednesday and brushed off attacks from Republicans who criticized it for being too extravagant and federally focused.
The secretary spent two and a half hours fielding questions from more than 20 representatives, including several who questioned Race to the Top and other merit-based funding and quizzed Duncan about a proposal that would keep the interest rate for subsidized federal loans for needy students at 3.4 percent next year. If no action is taken, the rate will double.
Duncan testified as Obama’s budget competes for support with a Republican proposal by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan  that includes cuts to education spending. GOP committee members expressed concern that the Education Department had developed a dangerous habit of allocating more and more money for projects without seeing much return. Representative Mike Kelly, Republican of Pennsylvania, suggested that that approach might be rooted in an overemphasis on “fairness” to different demographic groups, and questioned the need for continued funding increases for education.
“(The) underlying fairness is to the American taxpayer,” he said, “and they’re not getting a very fair return on their investment in education.”
Duncan said his department was working to fix those issues by giving states and colleges incentives to modernize their programs and keep their costs down, but added that now was not the time to cut the country’s spending on education.
“However well-intentioned, the Ryan plan draws on the same theory that led to the recession,” the secretary said. “Passage of the Ryan budget would propel education success backward.”
But Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, questioned the administration's timing. She pointed out that the provision that allows the interest rate to increase was not addressed when Democrats controlled Congress, and criticized Duncan for stepping up some forms of oversight while also asking colleges to offer a cheaper product.
"How do you square the fact that the administration promotes lower-cost models of higher education delivery with the fact that you’re making it impossible for those innovative models to develop and operate?" Foxx asked. "You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.”
Similar party line disagreements arose when Duncan testified before a House appropriations subcommittee last week . While both parties claim to be working toward some of the same goals -- meaningful education reform and greater access to college -- Democrats propose doing so through funding increases while many Republicans suggest the government should focus on well-established programs and save money by scrapping contests such as Race to the Top.
There was wide agreement among members of Congress Wednesday that loans and grants are important, but there were questions about the $6 billion Obama proposal that would hold interest rates constant next year. Ryan’s budget would allow the rate to double as planned.
Obama’s budget also calls for a $1.7 billion bump in the Education Department’s budget that would bring the department’s budget to $69.8 billion, before accounting for $13.3 billion in mandatory Pell Grant spending.
In Wednesday’s hearing, which focused largely on K-12 policy, Duncan suggested that more coordination between the two sectors could help increase success at all levels. Pressed by Representative Scott DesJarlais, Republican of Tennessee, about why so many students are taking longer than four years to graduate college, Duncan suggested breakdowns along the “pipeline” from kindergarten to college were partially to blame. Other Republicans made the connection between increased loan debt and federal spending and the extra years it was taking to graduate college.
Echoing a popular conservative refrain, DesJarlais suggested that systematic reforms might be more valuable than spending increases. “I don’t think we’re seeing a good return on education just by throwing more money to it,” he said.
While agreeing that money should be deployed with care, education leaders have rejected the argument that the government can cut its way to improvement. The Association of American Universities issued a statement  that said the Republican budget’s lack of emphasis on research funding threatens colleges, while possible changes to loan interest rates and Pell Grants would make it harder for students to attend.
That idea of access dominated much of Duncan’s testimony, which included frequent allusions to the fact that having at least some postsecondary learning is increasingly necessary to land a good job. The increased need for training is a popular topic both in and outside of the Obama administration, and one that has been used by Democrats to justify increases to higher education spending even as the country works to close a budget deficit.
“Fifty years ago, college was maybe a luxury,” Duncan told the House committee. “Those days are long gone.”
He said passing the Republican budget, which would curtail federal incentives for state-level reforms and leave some students paying thousands more on their loans, wouldn’t be fair considering those realities. “Now,” Duncan said, “is not the time to heap more costs on top of them.”