House Panel Discusses Department of Education’s FY 2016 Budget Request

On March 4, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies to discuss the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget request for the Department of Education.

Subcommittee Chair Tom Cole (R-OK) opened the hearing by noting the “education of America’s children is critical, not only to prepare them for the workforce, but to strengthen the economic health of our nation as a whole.” Cole noted that he also sits on the House Budget Committee and expressed his hope for a bigger deal between Congress and the Administration which will allow for a more “realistic allocation” to the Subcommittee. Congress will have “tough choices for every agency,” said the Chairman.

Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) stated that the federal government “has a responsibility to help everyone to gain access to a quality education, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.” DeLauro also lamented that the “madness of sequestration” has hit the Labor/HHS programs under the committee’s jurisdiction especially hard, noting that “after adjusting for inflation, the [appropriations] bill has sustained cuts of almost $20 billion since 2010.” She noted, however, that there is much to like in the President’s budget request and commended the proposal to ensure free community college tuition for responsible students. While she expressed support for the President’s proposed increase for TRIO, a program that helps low-income first-generation college students access and complete college, she also lamented that the request provides only level funding for other higher-education programs.

In his testimony, Secretary Duncan highlighted the 2013 bipartisan agreement—the so-called Murray-Ryan agreement—that partially reversed sequestration and allowed the Department to invest in areas ranging from research and schools to strengthening the military. With regards to education, Duncan testified, Congress was able to restore some of the cuts to Title I in IDEA in 2014. The President’s FY 2016 budget builds on that “progress by reversing sequestration and paying for it with a balanced mix of common sense spending cuts and by closing loopholes.” Accordingly, the FY 2016 budget reflects the Administration’s four main priorities: (1) ensuring equity and opportunity for all students, including a $1 billion increase for Title 1; (2) helping states expand high-quality early learning; (3) supporting education by investing $2.3 billion to improve teacher and principal effectiveness; and (4) improving affordability and outcomes in post-secondary education, most notably through American’s Promise which makes two years of community college free for responsible, hardworking students.

Duncan also noted that the FY 2015 budget request includes $53 million to improve college and career readiness for Native American youth and pledged the Department’s commitment to working with the Department of Interior to expand the Bureau of Indian Education’s capacity to provide desperately needed support.

Responding to Duncan’s comments on the Murray-Ryan agreement, Cole noted that he was part of that team and cautioned that the process came late and occurred after the Subcommittee had done its work. Despite that fact, he added, the Subcommittee was able to go back and undo some of “the things we all believe would have been damaging.” The chairman further shared that he suspected that the same thing will happen again this year. He expressed his hope, however, that negotiations occur sooner rather than later, which would provide for a much better work product out of the various Appropriation Subcommittees.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) commended the Secretary on the President’s proposed American Promise initiative and noted that he once visited a program in Cole’s district called the K20 Center in Oklahoma, which he found to be aspirational. Fattah specifically noted that he was impressed with the computer games the students were creating that incorporated messages around educational achievement. He expressed his support for making two years of college part of the social contract similar to the way high school is now viewed. He also expressed his support for Gear Up.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) expressed concern with the Department’s handling of the TRIO program in FY 2015 and inquired if the Administration supports the program. He shared that the Education Secretary of a previous Administration insisted that “TRIO was not a successful program” and consequently tried to incorporate it into other grant programs, something that the Subcommittee resisted. Duncan responded that the Administration is requesting an increase for the program and wants to challenge itself to make the program better. DeLauro associated herself with Simpson’s remarks and stated it is an issue in which she has been interested.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) asked the Secretary about coordination between the Department of Education and the Department of Justice when it comes to at-risk youth and their risk of dropping out of school. She also expressed her support for the American Promise initiative and the need to fully fund the program. Lee also shared her concern regarding whether funding for the program would put the historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs) at risk. She pointed out that the President’s FY 2016 budget flat-funded minority-serving institutions and pointed out that these programs’ graduation rate is nearly 40 percent compared to the 12.5 percent graduation rate of African Americans from community colleges.

Duncan responded that the dropout rate for African Americans is down 45 percent and the Latino dropout rate is down 50 percent over the past decade. There was an all-time high high-school graduation rate between 2008 and 2011, he explained, translating to 1.1 million additional students of color, not just graduating, but going on to college. He added that while the Department is thrilled, it is not satisfied the dropout rate is still “unacceptably high.” He also acknowledged that the Department is partnering with the Department of Justice in a number of areas, including addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline.” He shared he was stunned to learn that across the country officials were suspending and expelling three- and four year-olds from preschool.

With regard to the TRIO program, Duncan explained that the Department wants to put more resources towards the program to allow the programs supported to be “more innovative” and have more flexibility with respect to the rules as to allow the programs to help more students. Finally, responding to Lee’s concerns for HBCUs, Duncan answered that he believes that the investment in community colleges is a “huge deal” for HBCUs and it is not one versus the other. He noted “that many HBCUs are community colleges to begin with, so they would be funded directly.” Further, he shared that he thought the HBCUs would benefit disproportionately because so many community college students happen to be students of color.

Responding to Duncan’s remarks regarding TRIO, Chairman Cole added that there is strong bipartisan support for the program, certainly in his district. He shared that he has seen “the difference it makes in helping first-generation college students actually succeed.” One of his and the committee’s big concerns is the dropout rate in college and associated debt. He questioned as to why there was not more funding going towards the TRIO program.

Duncan assured the Chairman that there is more than just one funding source dedicated to helping first-generation college goers. While TRIO is a big part of that, so is GEAR Up, as is the proposed community college initiative. He also mentioned the First in the World program, which provides “grants to institutions of higher education to spur the development of innovations that improve educational outcomes and make college more affordable for students and families, and to develop an evidence base of effective practices.”

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