Secretary Arne Duncan's Testimony Before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Regarding the FY 2011 Education Budget

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Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Cochran, Members of the Subcommittee:

I planned to begin today by talking about education reform because there is a lot of good news to report—but before I do I want to talk about education jobs.

We are gravely concerned that the kind of state and local budget threats our schools face today will put our hard-earned reforms at risk. Every day brings media reports of layoffs, program cuts, class time reductions and class size increases.

Here's just a sample in some of your states:

  • Mister Chairman, you and I recently visited schools in Iowa—which just announced 1500 layoffs—half of them teachers. In Ames they are reducing full-day kindergarten to half day, and delaying textbook purchases.
  • In my home state of Illinois, they are looking at cutting 20,000 teaching jobs.
  • California and New York have also announced more than 20,000 jobs cuts each.
  • Schools in Jackson. Mississippi are increasing class size while public colleges in neighboring Louisiana are canceling summer classes in the face of $300 million in budget cuts over the next two years.
  • I read recently that some schools in Kansas have gone to a four-day school week and Hawaii began Friday furloughs earlier this school year.
  • New Jersey surveyed over 300 school districts and two-thirds are cutting sports, band, and clubs. Many are also dropping after-school programs.
  • Charlotte North Carolina will cut 600 teachers next year—Appleton, Wisconsin is losing 50 positions—mostly teachers—while one district in Washington State is cutting ten percent of its teaching work force.
  • In a survey of school administrators, a third of them say they may have to cut summer school, despite research showing that summer learning loss among low-income students is a significant contributor to the achievement gap.

While there is no hard number for the whole country, we think state budget cuts could imperil anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 education jobs.

That not only creates hardships for educators who lose their jobs and the children they teach, but the damage ripples through the economy as a whole.

The layoffs would create a new drag on the economy when—despite the recent encouraging jobs report—we still have a long way to go.

Literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another. Moreover, schools, districts and states that are working so hard to improve—will see their reforms undermined by these budget problems.

The financial crisis facing public education is coming at an especially crucial moment for America. We are more focused than ever before on the importance of education to our economy and more committed than ever before to challenging ourselves to get better.

There is a broad consensus that we must invest at every level—from early childhood through college to help the next generation succeed.

There is a deep commitment from stakeholders across the spectrum that education is one issue that can bring us together.

And at every level of our education system, there is groundbreaking work underway to change the way we teach and learn.

Forty-eight states are working together to raise education standards across the country because they understand we must better prepare our children for college and careers.

Let me be clear—this is a state-led movement. These are not federal standards.

States are also preparing to compete in Phase Two of the Race to the Top competition. This $4 billion program—which represents less than one percent of K-12 education funding nationally—has prompted states and stakeholders to sit down together and have the kind of difficult but necessary conversations that have never happened before.

The results—in a word—are stunning—even before money is out the door. Legal barriers to reform have been eliminated, progressive labor agreements have been forged, and new partnerships have emerged around bold and far-reaching plans. By one count, 26 states have passed laws to strengthen their education reform agendas.

And there is enormous demand for the program. Forty states and DC applied in Phase 1, requesting $13 billion dollars. We expect even more applications in Phase 2.

And this is just one of our competitive programs.

Thanks to school improvement grants provided by Congress in the last two budgets and the Recovery Act, educators across America are also confronting the toughest challenge in education—which is fixing their lowest-performing schools.

Thanks to the Investing in Innovation program, also created by Congress through the Recovery Act, school districts, foundations and community partners are developing innovative new learning models to take into our classrooms and schools. We expect as many as 2500 applications and we know that we will have at least two from every state.

Today, our colleges of education are rethinking how they train teachers for the classrooms of tomorrow.

States, districts and schools are rethinking how they recruit, support and evaluate teachers in order to strengthen the profession.

And today, millions more young people are getting grants to attend college, thanks to the leadership of the President and Congress and the historic decision to shift billions of dollars from bank subsidies for student loans to help low-income students pay for college.

All of this work has been accelerated by your leadership and your commitment to children and education. And with your leadership, we want to do much more to support this work at the local level.

Our proposed ESEA blueprint is defined by three words: fair, flexible and focused.

  • We want to create a fair system of accountability that—instead of stigmatizing schools and educators—rewards them for excellence.
  • Rather than dictating one-size-fits all solutions—we want to give states and districts more flexibility to improve in the vast majority of schools that may have significant educational challenges but are by no means “failing."
  • And third—we want to focus resources and support on students most at risk in low-performing schools and schools with large ongoing achievement gaps.

Our 2011 budget request supports continuing formula funding for low-income and special education students, and teachers and principals, as well as students learning English, and other diverse populations from rural to migrant to homeless.

But we also know that kids at risk are not well-served by the status quo which is why we want to continue driving reform with competitive programs.

So with our budget request we hope to continue Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation fund, and programs to get great teachers and principals in schools and classrooms where they are needed most.

Mr. Chairman, I know that you and others worked tirelessly to include the Early Learning Challenge Fund in the Student Lending bill and I thank you for that.

Given that it ultimately was not included we want to work with you to bring it back because we must do more to help students start school ready to succeed.

Two other unmet needs are the remaining shortfall in the Pell grant program and the increased administrative costs associated with the shift to 100% direct lending.

I greatly appreciate the Senate leadership in helping cover the Pell shortfall in the reconciliation bill.

Now, I want to work with Congress to address the remainder of the shortfall, through a supplemental appropriation or other appropriate measure, to avoid putting pressure on other critical education programs.

Lastly, given that we are now assuming 100 percent of the student loan portfolio, we must strengthen our student lending operation to ensure that the student aid program is efficient and our private contracts are well-managed. Most of the additional money we are requesting will support private loan-servicing contracts.

I want to salute Congress on both sides of the aisle for embracing our responsibility to our children and investing in education.

Thanks to you we have entered an exciting new era of educational reform, progress and opportunity.

I also ask you to consider the looming budget threat that could put all of this at risk.

The Recovery Act dollars given to the Department of Education helped save an estimated 400,000 jobs at the state and local level—mostly in education but also in public safety and other areas of critical need.

It was the right thing to do and it proved that state fiscal relief is an effective way to create economic activity and jobs. The final round of funding is now making its way to state capitals and school districts, and to college students through Pell grants. But it's not nearly enough to avert the catastrophe unfolding across this country.

And so today, on behalf of governors, mayors, educators and students, parents, business leaders, community leaders and everyone who shares the view that education is the key to our economic strength and civic vitality, I urge Congress to consider another round of emergency support for America's schools.

If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children. The fact is that gaps for special education, low-income and minority students remain stubbornly wide.

One in four high school students fails to graduate. Forty percent of students who go to college need remedial education. And huge numbers of young people determined to go to college and pursue a career drop out because of financial or academic challenges.

If we want reform to move forward, we need an education jobs program. Jobs and reform go hand-in-hand.

It is very difficult to improve the quality of education while losing teachers, raising class size, and eliminating after school and summer school programs.

Teachers work very hard and the best of them give their heart and soul to their profession. They are heroes in every sense of the word and we need to support them—especially because we are asking more of them.

The status quo in education is not good enough. We must all get better. Our children need it. Our future demands it.

Thank you so much, and now I am happy to take your questions.