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Duncan questioned on move to cut funding for Teach for America

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 4:02 PM

Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced unusually sharp questioning from House Democrats Thursday over the Obama administration's proposals to eliminate a grant for the Teach for America program and hold the line on new funding for many other education programs.

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The House Budget Committee hearing on the $50.7 billion education budget proposed for the fiscal year that begins in October provided an early glimpse at congressional reaction to the Obama administration's plan to put more emphasis on competitions for federal funding, including its signature Race to the Top initiative that will reward states and school districts whose education policies are in line with Obama's.

For decades, education programs have been driven by formulas that spread money across the country based on population, poverty levels and other factors, as well as targeted grants to benefit specific organizations. Those formulas mean that all 535 members of Congress can point to federal funding flowing to schools in their states and districts.

Much of the reaction to the new, competitive approach ranged from lukewarm to hostile.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) pressed Duncan on why the administration would force Teach for America, which enlists thousands of recent college graduates each year to teach in high-needs schools without going through traditional certification programs, to compete for funding. The nonprofit organization this fiscal year has an $18 million federal education grant, in addition to other federal funding. Its leadership has expressed concern that the loss of a guaranteed funding stream would threaten its growth.

"We made some tough calls. And what we did is we simply eliminated all the earmarks. We increased the chance for competition," Duncan said.

"Teach for America is an earmark?" Doggett asked.

"It was a set-aside," Duncan clarified. The organization, he said, would have "every opportunity to compete and get, frankly, significantly more money."

Doggett asked Duncan whether the funding shift would force the organization to make at least a short-term cutback.

"I don't know the answer to that question," Duncan said. "That's a fair question." He said he has high regard for Teach for America.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) criticized the administration's plan to freeze at $14.5 billion a year the main formula program to help educate impoverished students, known as Title I. She also dismissed as "budget dust" a proposed $250 million increase for special education grants to states, to help students with disabilities. Funding for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, would rise to $11.8 billion, from this year's level of $11.5 billion.

DeLauro said schools would need far more aid -- especially, aid that is assured rather than speculative -- in the coming year as stimulus funding tails off. "Schools are already deep in the hole," she said. "They are going to be further in the hole. This doesn't seem to me to be a direction we ought to be going."

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) tore into the administration's proposal to freeze a $910 million program known as TRIO, which provides support for disadvantaged students to complete college. She contrasted that with the administration's plan to expand competitive grant funding for other programs.

"How does every child have a great chance at an education when there are winners and losers in this?" Moore asked.

Duncan replied: "Our commitment to disadvantaged children has never been higher." Repeatedly during the hearing he pointed out record federal funding for education reform through the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, as well as billions of dollars in grants to help states turn around struggling schools and tens of billions more provided through the stimulus law to help prevent teacher layoffs. He also cited proposals to spend billions more on college access and affordability.

After the hearing, Duncan sat on the edge of a tabletop to listen further as Moore buttonholed him.

"You flat-funded TRIO," she said. "How dare you! . . . No, you don't get it. You don't get it."

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