Educational Equity: The Theme of the FY 2015 Budget

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Educational Equity: The Theme of the FY 2015 Budget

Opening Statement on the U.S. Department of Education FY 2015 Budget, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies

April 30, 2014

[Note: Secretary Duncan deviated from his prepared remarks]

Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Moran, and Senators:

The story of American education today is a good news/bad news story.

Let me begin by thanking you for your work on the 2014 budget, which increased our investment in education over the previous year.

This investment is essential for the "good news" side of the story, which is that our students are making substantial progress in graduating from high school and enrolling in college.

Our nation's on-time high school graduation rate reached a record high in 2012 of 80 percent. That is a great testament to the hard work of our nation's teachers, school leaders, students, and their families. College enrollment is up as well since President Obama took office, with Latino and African-American students leading the way.

The bad news is that we still have unacceptable opportunity gaps in America—and it will be very difficult to close those gaps when Federal discretionary funding for education, excluding Pell Grants, remains below the 2010 level.

Our international competitors are not making the mistake of disinvesting in education—and their students are making more progress than America's students, endangering our country's competitiveness and prosperity.

In a knowledge-based, global economy, the need to close these opportunity gaps and strengthen our competitiveness is one of the most urgent challenges facing our nation. To continue to fall behind would hurt our country economically for generations to come.

So I appeal to you today to continue America's longstanding, bipartisan commitment to investing in education.

Dating back to our nation's founding, the federal government has provided incentives to state and local governments to invest in education and expand educational opportunity. Before the States ratified the Constitution, the Continental Congress required townships to reserve money for the construction of schools and granted federal lands to states to create and support public schools.

Despite the educational progress we have made as a nation, large opportunity gaps remain, at a time where education is more important than ever to accelerating economic progress, increasing upward mobility, and reducing social inequality.

President Obama's budget would increase investment in education to boost that progress and close our opportunity gaps.

Sadly, those opportunity gaps start with our youngest learners and early childhood education:

America is 25th in the world [MS PowerPoint, 2.99M] in our enrollment of four-year olds in preschool. Four in ten public school systems in the U.S. don't even offer preschool, setting the stage for a huge gap in school readiness that not only President Obama, but most of our Nation's governors, find unacceptable.

In the real world, outside of Washington and away from congressional dysfunction, this has become a truly bipartisan issue. Last year, 30 governors—17 Republicans and 13 Democrats—increased funding for preschool in their state budgets.

In tough economic times, these leaders chose to use scarce taxpayer dollars to expand access to high-quality early learning opportunities. Budgets—not just words, not empty rhetoric—reflect our true values, and these 30 governors walked the walk.

This year, for example, Governor Snyder of Michigan committed to putting $65 million more into the state program to ensure children in need of preschool have access to it. He said that he was going to make Michigan "a no-wait state for early childhood education." We need to help every state to be able to make that claim.

That's why the President's request for $500 million for Preschool Development Grants, and $75 billion in mandatory funding for the Preschool for All program are so essential to our nation's future. They would support State efforts to provide access to high-quality preschool through a mixed-delivery system—including both public and private providers—for all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families.

It's very encouraging that such a diverse, highly unusual coalition is working together to support these efforts. State attorneys, sheriffs, and police associations support high-quality early learning because it reduces crime when kids grow up.

Military leaders support it because a staggering three-fourths of young adults today are not able to serve in our voluntary military because they have dropped out of high school, can't pass the entrance exam, are physically unfit for service, or have a criminal record. High-quality early learning reduces all of those problems. Our military has always been our strongest defense; our education system must now be our strongest offense.

In addition, hundreds of hard-headed business leaders and CEOs are big advocates because they know high-quality early learning produces a better workforce, and has a high ROI, or return on investment.

In fact, Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs. How many other uses of taxpayer dollars have such a high rate of return for the American people?

Unfortunately, opportunity gaps in early learning continue all the way through high school, as new data from our Civil Rights Data Collection show [MS PowerPoint, 2.99M].

Today, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners simply don't get the same opportunity as their white and Asian-American peers to take the math and science courses that figure so importantly in preparing for careers and college.

Often, this lack of access means students can't take the required classes they need to apply to four-year colleges. Or, it means they go to college, but must burn through Pell Grants and financial aid, taking non-credit bearing remedial classes.

Nationwide, black and Hispanic students are close to 40 percent of high school students, but just over a quarter of students taking AP classes, and only 20 percent of those enrolled in calculus classes. This dummying down of expectations is devastating to students, their families, their communities, and ultimately to our nation.

And this final slide highlights opportunity gaps [MS PowerPoint, 2.99M] in access to high-speed broadband in our schools. Most schools today have nowhere near the bandwidth speed that they need to support current applications and instruction.

Fully two-thirds of our teachers wish they had more technology in their classrooms. Technology both empowers teachers and engages students in their own learning.

Simply put, other nations take these responsibilities and opportunities more seriously than we do. In South Korea, 100 percent of schools have high-speed Internet. Here in the U.S., it's only about 20 percent.

So our students, teachers, and schools often lack the bandwidth to take advantage of new technologies and tools that could accelerate efforts to close achievement gaps, individualize instruction, and ensure that all students graduate college and career-ready. How is that fair to our children, or to their hard-working teachers? How is that in our nation's self-interest?

Making progress on closing these opportunity gaps is the ribbon—the theme—that runs throughout the President's 2015 education budget request.

It is the overarching goal of the Preschool Development Grants and Preschool for All.

It's behind our request for a $300 million Race to the Top Equity and Opportunity fund to help States and districts develop roadmaps to ensure all students can reach their potential, and our $200 million ConnectEDucators initiative, to provide teachers with the expertise they need to use technology to teach students to high standards and personalize instruction.

By contrast, the House Republican budget would widen opportunity gaps. OMB estimates that the Ryan budget would cut funding for education by 15 percent in 2016, or by about $10 billion.

If the 15 percent cut were applied to this year, Title I funding for high-poverty schools and disadvantaged students would be cut by $2.2 billion. IDEA grants to states for students with disabilities would be cut by $1.7 billion. That's exactly the wrong direction to go for our children and our nation's future. We can, and must, do better, together.

The American dream has always been about opportunity. Today, our nation is failing to live up to that core American ideal for all of our citizens. We must do more now to level the playing field and make a great education available to every child. That is who we are.

As former Florida governor Jeb Bush says, "the sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn't exist in many of our schools... That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time and it is hurting all of America."

So let's get back to working together to close opportunity gaps—that, we all agree, are deeply at odds with the American promise of equal opportunity. Thank you.