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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 27, 2010

David Axelrod says GOP "Pledge" would cut education by 20 percent, "slash" student aid for 8 million

Just days after House Republicans released a governing blueprint called "A Pledge to America," the White House took aim at the GOP platform. Speaking on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour on Sept. 26, 2010, David Axelrod, one of President Barack Obama's top advisers, zeroed in on the Republican plan for education.

"When you look at that Pledge to America, it is a complete echo of what was done before," Axelrod said. "It would borrow $700 billion to cut taxes for the very wealthy, add trillions of dollars to the deficits. It would unleash the special interests to be writing rules here on Capitol Hill again. And it would cut things like -- there's a 20 percent cut in there for education. We're talking about our economy. Education is the defense budget of the -- economic defense budget of the 21st century, and they're basically talking about disarmament. Eight million kids would have their college aid slashed under this budget. This isn't a prescription for economic growth; this is a prescription for surrender. We can't do that."

We thought we'd check whether the House GOP really intends to cut education funding by 20 percent and whether 8 million students would see their aid "slashed."

First, Axelrod wrongly said on This Week that the 20 percent cut comes from the GOP's "Pledge" document. Actually, that document doesn't address education policy --  there's not a single word in the 48-page document about education.

When we mentioned this to the White House, a spokeswoman clarified that Axelrod's argument stemmed instead from a Sept. 8, 2010, proposal by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that Congress cut non-security-related discretionary spending to its fiscal year 2008 level. Boehner stood behind both the Pledge and the proposed discretionary spending cut, so we don't think it's misleading for Axelrod to link House Republicans to the discretionary spending cut.

The White House also told us that Axelrod relied on an analysis of the Boehner proposal produced by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This report said the Boehner proposal would result in a "21 percent cut in K-12 education funding would take more than $8 billion out of this area in fiscal year 2011."

So let's look at how the Education Department budget would look if the Republican proposal took effect. Axelrod wasn't specific about which budget years he was comparing, so we'll offer three figures for the Education Department's proposed discretionary budget:

Fiscal year 2011 (estimated): $49.7 million

Fiscal year 2010 (estimated): $46.8 million

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Fiscal year 2008 (enacted): $37.9 million

So, the Republican plan would cut the budget by 19 percent from its 2010 level and by 24 percent from its proposed 2011 level. So, Axelrod is in the correct range. We're prepared to offer him some leeway because the math is complicated by quirks in how budget items are categorized and by inconsistencies in how budget tables over the period are constructed.

When we ran the White House's approach by Boehner's office, a spokesman said that they're based on a faulty assumption -- that the Boehner proposal would institute identical, across-the-board cuts for every department and program. In fact, the spokesman said, the proposal would be to set the entire discretionary budget to 2008 levels and then negotiate cuts in each program to meet that target.

That's all well and good, but the fact is that Boehner's news release doesn't explain exactly how its cuts would be made. So, given the information available, we think it's reasonable for Axelrod to have based his claim on an across-the-board cut. Moreover, if Boehner's office is suggesting that under his proposal, the cuts in education could in fact be less than 20 percent, then by the same logic they could also end up higher than 20 percent.

Ultimately, Axelrod wrongly attributes that to the Pledge, but he is right that Boehner has made such a proposal, and Axelrod's assumptions are reasonable.

Now, on to the second claim -- that "eight million kids would have their college aid slashed under this budget."

This claim is also tricky to evaluate, since there are several types of student loans and grants under the Education Department budget, some of which are considered discretionary spending (meaning they'd be subject to Boehner's proposed cut) and some of which are considered mandatory spending (which would not be subject to his cut). But we'll try our best to sort it out.

There are four major types of discretionary student aid: Pell grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants, federal work-study grants and federal Perkins loans. If you add together the recipients of these four grants, the total is 10.9 million for fiscal year 2010 and 12 million for 2011. That would actually be more students than Axelrod suggests, but experts told us that these numbers could be inflated by students whose aid packages include funds from two or more of these programs. So Axelrod's 8,000 figure -- which happens to be the ballpark number of Pell grants, the largest of the four programs -- seems reasonable to us.

One final question is whether it's fair to use the word "slashed" to describe a roughly 20 percent cut. We think a 20 percent cut is deep enough to justify that term.

So where does this leave us? We'll grant that Boehner's camp has a right to dispute Axelrod's suggestion that the Pledge outlined a 20 percent cut. That document itself didn't mention education, but Boehner outlined a 20 percent cut. He never specified that it would be other than across the board until we contacted his office, so we think it's reasonable for Axelrod to conclude that education would be cut in line with the rest of federal agencies. Meanwhile, the percentage cut and the student aid recipient numbers that Axelrod cited strike us as fair estimates, given the complexities of calculating year-to-year budgetary numbers for federal agencies. On balance, we rate Axelrod's comment Half True.

Our Sources

David Axelrod, interview on This Week with Christiane Amanpour, Sept. 26, 2010

House Republican Conference, "A Pledge to America," Sept. 23, 2010

John Boehner, "Background: House Republicans' Plan for Immediate, Bipartisan Action on the Economy" (news release), Sept. 8, 2010

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Boehner Proposal Would Cut Non-Security Discretionary Programs 21 Percent, The Deepest Such Cut in Recent U.S. History" (briefing paper), Sept. 15, 2010

Education Department, budget history table, 1980-2009

Office of Management and Budget, fiscal 2011 budget proposal (detailed information on the Education Department), accessed Sept. 27, 2010

Office of Management and Budget, fiscal 2011 budget proposal (summary), accessed Sept. 27, 2010

E-mail interview with James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sept. 27, 2010

E-mail interview with Stephen Burd, editor of Higher Ed Watch blog at the New America Foundation, Sept. 27, 2010

E-mail interview with Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Sept. 27, 2010

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