WASHINGTON -- A Wednesday hearing on 2012 education spending turned into a skeptical grilling of the Department of Education's wide-ranging and sometimes controversial policies.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan faced many questions from members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on education, where concerns about spending were heightened by the prolonged negotiations over the debt ceiling. Senators focused on the cost and benefits of Pell Grants, Duncan's emphasis on funding certain competitions, education in high-demand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields and No Child Left Behind.
Duncan defended the Education Department's request for a 13.3 percent budget increase over 2011, which would bring the department's spending one fifth higher than 2010 levels.
"As every family is doing more with less, so should we," Duncan said. "[But] you can't sacrifice the future to pay for the present." He said the increase in spending would allow the department to fund the increased demand for Pell grants as well as reform early learning initiatives and the Race to the Top program.
The hearing comes after a busy year in education policy with statehouses passing laws altering the way teachers are hired and fired; school districts making cuts because of dried-up of stimulus funding; and with Duncan proposing regulatory relief for states burdened by the strictures of the No Child Left Behind act in light of Congress's failure to revamp the legislation.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) painted a picture of the problem cash-strapped states face in funding education: He noted that in 2011, a continuing Obama resolution eliminated 37 education programs, including the only comprehensive federal literacy program. School districts around the country have slashed budgets, fired teachers and shortened their school years.
"It is wishful thinking to expect improvements in school quality when we are laying off teachers," Harkin said. "Smart countries do not just turn a chainsaw on themselves."
Duncan took flack from several senators for increased spending and the Race to the Top competition. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) criticized Duncan's spending, saying, "I am gravely concerned that the Department of Education has delayed some of the tough choices that are necessary to ensure national economic stability."
He also came out against Race to the Top, calling it the program a recipe for inequitable funding among the states -- such as Alabama -- that lose out.
"I understand that education reform is never easy," Shelby said. "However, it is made significantly more difficult when states must meet prescriptive requirements -- in this case a de facto requirement for charter school legislation -- to even compete for available funding."
In Alabama, he said, STEM initiatives have gained national renown -- but Race to the Top only awarded STEM programs 15 out of the 500 total Race to the Top points. He later asked Duncan to review the scoring in RTTT before the competition's next round, with a special eye on STEM.
"Absolutely," Duncan responded.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) also took issue with Duncan's competitions, calling such initiatives "untested, large-scale competitive grant programs" employed "at the expense of some proven research-based programs."
Duncan noted that the vast majority of education funding is "formula-based" as opposed to distributed through competitions. For RTTT, he said, the Education Department had asked "for a smaller percent of money to reward excellence and courage."
"It wasn't just about who received money," Duncan said in defense of RTTT. "It was creating a climate in this country for folks starting to do the right thing. He cited some components of the competitions, such as school turnarounds, as positive steps for districts.
Pell Grants, at risk in the ongoing debt-ceiling negotiations, figured prominently in the conversation. Duncan and Harkin said that cuts to the program have already been made, but expanding its funding its necessary. Increasing poverty and the recession have created greater demand for Pell Grants, making them key to eliminating college entrance barriers among underprivileged students.
"If we scale back on Pell access, we'll simply have a lot less people going to college," Duncan said.
The proposed spending plan calls for a $5.6 billion discretionary spending increase in Pell Grants.
Shelby had harsh words for Pell Grants' increasing cost to government, which he said has doubled since 2008.
"We are on the brink of breaking our commitment to students who wish to attend college because the Pell Grant program is on a fiscally unsustainable path," Shelby said. He said that new laws that expanded eligibility coupled with the recession made the program more costly. "We cannot continue to throw money at this problem," he said.
When Harkin repeated his maxim that cutting Pell funding would be "like turning a chainsaw on yourself," Shelby responded that no policymakers "want to chainsaw any program that's going to sustain our education system."
But, he argued, the reality of the country's financial situation means "we're all taking a chainsaw to our budgets right now."
Duncan also faced questions about his plan to issue waivers for states struggling to meet NCLB's strictures. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) pressed Duncan for specifics on his waiver plan.
Duncan, as usual, gave few details. He said congressional "dysfunction" in "coming up with a bipartisan bill" for overhauling NCLB has left states in need of regulatory relief.
Harkin told HuffPost that NCLB negotiations are proceeding among senators, and that he hopes to have a markup ready by the fall. He has previously called the waivers premature, but said that they might be a viable solution if the process slows.
"If in fact we cannot reach some decent bi-partisan agreement," Harkin said, the waivers could be appropriate this coming school year.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested Sen. Reed objected to Promise Neighborhood grants. Reed did not mention those grants in his criticism of competition initiatives.