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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 February 23 - 12:00 am

Obama Administration Retreats on College Construction Funds

WASHINGTON — New U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled that the Obama administration intended to fight for money to modernize and renovate college buildings — money that was included in the economic stimulus bill approved by the House but eliminated by the Senate.

Speaking at the annual convention of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., Duncan said that colleges desperately need money to finance shovel-ready projects that have been dormant for years because of lack of financing.

“Astonishingly, the Senate proposal has dropped money for school modernization that had been approved by the House,” Duncan said. “It makes no sense, especially since it would create new jobs quickly.”

The House version of the economic stimulus bill provided a $6 billion “higher education facilities modernization fund.” It would be divided among states, based on enrollment, to finance renovations of campus buildings.

The Senate version of the bill eliminates the fund altogether, dashing the hopes of college officials who had been looking forward to a construction windfall.

In the end, the Obama administration agreed to a compromise that embraced the Senate position.

Instead, the compromise bill provides $54 billion in aid to be divided among the states to balance their budgets. Some of the allocation can be used to upgrade education facilities, but how much of the money would go to higher education institutions remained unclear as Community College Week went to press.

The compromise represents a retreat by the Obama administration, which had indicated it was willing to fight for the education money.

Making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, Lawrence Summers, Obama’s top economic advisor, said, “There are crucial areas, support for higher education, that are things in the House bill that are very, very important to the president.”

Duncan underscored the point during his 15-minute talk to education leaders in Washington.

Citing a forthcoming University of Washington report, Duncan said states are planning to cut $80 billion in education funding over the next two years, putting the jobs of as many as 600,000 teachers and professors at risk.

“Without that state money, hundreds of thousands of teachers and professors will be collecting unemployment instead of teaching our children,” he said.

“We need to push for every dollar we can get, because universities and community colleges desperately need that money to avert cuts,” he said.

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