Republicans Want to Talk Education, but Will They Fund It?

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) makes remarks during a news briefing at the U.S. Captiol March 25, 2010 in Washington, DC. Cantor said that leaders from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have turned threats against Democrats who voted for the health care reform package into a political issue.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 8, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

The GOP’s re­sponse to Pres­id­ent Obama’s in­come-in­equity mes­sage is to push job-train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­pos­als. Those could work, help­ing people to get the skills they need to start climb­ing the eco­nom­ic lad­der again. But first, Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress would have to agree to do something more than talk about it. They may even have to cough up some money for it.

Edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates point to mul­tiple cuts in edu­ca­tion and job-train­ing pro­grams since 2010. The cuts amount to about $3.7 bil­lion in dis­cre­tion­ary funds, ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee for Edu­ca­tion Fund­ing. Head Start alone has lost $401 mil­lion in one year just from the se­quester re­duc­tions, cut­ting off ser­vices to 57,000 low-in­come chil­dren.

These harsh budget fig­ures — and there are more where those came from — don’t bode well for a GOP that is try­ing to em­path­ize with people who are strug­gling with poverty. Re­pub­lic­ans’ policy ideas on edu­ca­tion could be win­ners for the gen­er­al pub­lic if law­makers can back them up with ac­tion. The GOP pro­pos­als in­clude in­creased school­ing op­tions for fam­il­ies and train­ing pro­grams for people who re­ceive means-tested be­ne­fits.

But if they can’t bend even a little bit on the money, their edu­ca­tion mes­sage could wind up be­ing noth­ing but smoke and mir­rors.

House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor on Wed­nes­day made an im­pas­sioned plea to ex­pand op­tions for charter schools, vouch­ers for private schools, and flex­ible fund­ing for poverty-stricken school dis­tricts.

“School choice is the surest way to break this vi­cious cycle of poverty,” Can­tor said in a speech at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

Can­tor also de­nounced the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent and past ef­forts to fix the school sys­tems as “hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars to im­prove schools in low-in­come areas with little to no ef­fect.”

Can­tor was echo­ing a fa­mil­i­ar GOP view that the gov­ern­ment needs to get out of the edu­ca­tion game.

Para­dox­ic­ally, that leaves law­makers few op­tions to ac­tu­ally do any­thing.

House Re­pub­lic­ans are tout­ing an anti-poverty cam­paign that in­cludes an ele­ment­ary and sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion bill that passed the House this sum­mer. All Demo­crats op­posed it be­cause it would lock in the aus­tere edu­ca­tion budget caps re­quired un­der se­quest­ra­tion. The om­ni­bus ap­pro­pri­ations bill set to be un­veiled next week will likely add a little bit to the cur­rent edu­ca­tion bot­tom line, but even if that hap­pens, it’s still not much to work with.

“It’s go­ing to be really dif­fi­cult un­der the cur­rent caps to do any­thing sig­ni­fic­antly new,” said Joel Pack­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Com­mit­tee for Edu­ca­tion Fund­ing. “You’re just kind of re­shuff­ling the chairs.”

Re­pub­lic­ans re­spond to these cri­ti­cisms by say­ing they want to con­sol­id­ate du­plic­at­ive edu­ca­tion and train­ing pro­grams. But the polit­ic­ally ex­pend­able ones won’t of­fer much in the way of sav­ings, ac­cord­ing to Pack­er. More than two-thirds of the dis­cre­tion­ary edu­ca­tion budget is taken up with pro­grams that Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike care deeply about — Pell Grants, fund­ing for poor school dis­tricts, and fund­ing for edu­cat­ing kids with dis­ab­il­it­ies.

Rep. Steve South­er­land of Flor­ida is one of the few Re­pub­lic­ans who has ac­tu­ally pro­posed le­gis­la­tion that would make fed­er­al job-train­ing fund­ing avail­able to states. But there’s a catch. Those states would have to agree to re­quire food-stamp re­cip­i­ents to work, look for work, or vo­lun­teer. South­er­land’s much-pil­lor­ied food-stamp pro­pos­al blew up the farm bill last fall.

South­er­land is back­ing off on his in­sist­ence that a food-stamp work re­quire­ment be part of the farm bill, say­ing he would hap­pily ac­cept a pi­lot pro­gram to al­low states to ex­per­i­ment with his idea. But in the pro­cess, he has also made it clear that he em­braces fed­er­al dol­lars for job train­ing. “We be­lieve in those train­ing dol­lars, and that’s why we in­cor­por­ated them in­to our bill,” he said Wed­nes­day.

House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp, R-Mich., said he wants job train­ing and work op­por­tun­it­ies (and re­quire­ments) to be in­cor­por­ated in­to more gov­ern­ment pro­grams for the poor.

“Wheth­er you’re pre­par­ing for work or vo­lun­teer­ing, it does get you back in­to the work­force,” he said.

These ideas hearken back to the 1996 wel­fare over­haul that re­quired work and job train­ing for wel­fare re­cip­i­ents. The pro­pos­als were rad­ic­al at the time but were later widely con­sidered a suc­cess.

Re­pub­lic­ans now grouse that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has gut­ted the wel­fare work re­quire­ment. Demo­crats grouse back that the GOP has forced a gut­ting of edu­ca­tion and train­ing budgets.

Per­haps they can find a happy me­di­um.

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