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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 27, 2016

Unions attack Marco Rubio's education record

Two liberal labor unions say that Sen. Marco Rubio’s priorities are wrong for Floridians.

A TV ad by AFSCME People and AFT Solidarity accuses Rubio of favoring cuts to Social Security and Medicare and also says he "voted to slash school funding by billions of dollars and would eliminate the Department of Education."

AFSCME represents public sector workers while AFT stands for American Federation of Teachers -- both unions endorsed Rubio’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, in the U.S. Senate contest. The ad is airing in the Tampa and Orlando media markets.

We have previously fact-checked similar claims about Rubio’s position on Social Security and Medicare cuts and found them Half True. Here we will look at the education-related attacks that refer to his vote on the federal budget in 2011 and a statement he made on the presidential campaign trail in 2015.

Education cuts

The ad doesn’t explain the timeframe for the cuts, but the fine print cites a 2011 article by the liberal Center for American Progress. At the time, the Democrats and Republicans were in a budget stalemate about how to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year.

That’s a reference to H.R. 1, legislation to fund appropriations through the end of 2011 that passed the House but was rejected by the Senate in a 44-56 vote on March 9, 2011. Rubio joined most of his Republican colleagues in voting in favor of it -- only three Republicans voted against it on the floor, and no Democrats voted for it.

(Ultimately, the House, the Senate and the president agreed to a series of short-term "continuing resolutions" to keep the government going, rather than approving a more sweeping spending bill.)

The legislation aimed to cut spending by about $57 billion -- including loads of cuts that had nothing to do with education. Republican leaders emphasized the broader aspects of the plan about reducing the size of government while Democrats emphasized the impact on education and disease research (the National Institutes of Health would also have been hit).  

In a statement after the vote, Rubio said that he supported the Republican plan but said more time should be spent to overhaul entitlements:

"I supported this first step towards getting our fiscal house in order, but the truth is that America has reached a point where saving $57 billion is a mere drop in the bucket when compared to our $14 trillion debt. While reducing discretionary spending is an important goal, Washington is devoting a disproportionate amount of time to a tiny slice of the budget while ignoring the fact that continued inaction on saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is bankrupting our country."

Here are some examples of the education cuts:

• Title I education spending. This is a program that sends federal funds to the states for K-12 education. H.R. 1 would have cut Title I spending by $693.5 million compared with the amount enacted for fiscal year 2010.

• Part B IDEA grants. This program provides federal funding for special education based on a formula. H.R. 1 would have cut Part B spending by $557.7 million compared with the 2010 level.

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• Pell grants. This program funds low-income individuals pursuing undergraduate or sometimes graduate degrees. H.R. 1 would have capped the size of Pell grants for the 2011-12 award year at $4,015. Once that amount is adjusted for an additional sum provided under mandatory funding, the maximum level for Pell grants would be $845 lower than the 2011 level.

• Head Start. This program provides low-income children of preschool age with child-development programs that teach skills that prepare them for school. H.R. 1 would have cut Head Start by a little under $1.1 billion.

Education Department

While campaigning for president in September 2015 in Carson City, Nev., Rubio said at a town hall, "I honestly think we don't need an Education Department."

Rubio said that federal recommendations to state and local governments often turn into mandates tied to money.

"What starts out as a suggestion ends up being, ‘If you want money from us, you must to do it this way,’ and you will end up with a version of a national school board," Rubio said.

Democrats noted that Rubio’s college education was paid for in part by Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, which are administered by the Education Department.

But Rubio said that federal programs that have merit could be transferred to other agencies. Although he wants to get rid of the education department, he supports efforts to make higher education affordable. Rubio also supports less federal involvement and more state and local control. For example, he introduced legislation that seeks to strengthen school choice for parents through a tax credit and he supports Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

We’ll note that Rubio has a lot of company among Republicans who want to eliminate the department.

Such calls to ax the department are campaign rhetoric, said University of Iowa education professor David Bills.

"Reagan back in 1980 would have loved to eliminate the DOE," Bills said. "I think it would be hard to find a major Republican now who doesn’t want to at least radically shrink it. ....  All of that kind of slowed down when Bush II came in with No Child Left Behind. I think Rubio is pretty representative."

Our ruling

The TV ad by liberal groups says "Rubio voted to slash school funding by billions of dollars and would eliminate the Department of Education."

Rubio, along with nearly all of his Republican Senate colleagues, voted for legislation in 2011 that would have cut about $57 billion in spending. The ad omits that this was across-the-board spending that didn’t solely target education, and it failed to pass.

While a presidential candidate in 2015, Rubio did advocate eliminating the U.S. Education Department. The ad omits that he said he would move worthwhile programs to other agencies.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Political TV ad archive, "Priorities" ad by AFSCME and AFT Solidarity, Sept. 23, 2016, H.R. 1, Vote on March 9, 2011

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Press release, March 9, 2011

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Floor speech, July 10, 2013

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Speech, Feb. 10, 2014

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Education plan, Sept. 14, 2015

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Press release, Feb. 13, 2013

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Press release, Aug. 16, 2016

Des Moines Register, "Rubio: Let’s overhaul higher education," Sept. 14, 2015

House Appropriations Committee, "FY 2011 Continuing Resolution Reductions" (table), 2011

U.S. Education Department, 10 Facts about K-12 education spending, Accessed Sept. 23, 2016

U.S. Education Department, OSEP grant opportunities and funding, Accessed Sept. 23, 2016

U.S. Education Department, Pell grant program, Accessed Sept. 23, 2016

Office of Administration for Children and Families, Head Start, Accessed Sept. 23, 2016

Center for American Progress, "What would H.R. 1 really mean for our schools?" Feb. 28, 2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Debate clip, 2011

Miami Herald Naked Politics blog, "Labor unions' new attack ad criticizes Marco Rubio's 'priorities,’" Sept. 23, 2016

PolitiFact, "Chris Van Hollen says GOP has "demanded deep cuts" in education, disease research," April 15, 2011

PolitiFact, "Stimulus payments have chugged on," Jan. 8, 2013

PolitiFact, "New House majority held a five-day vote-a-thon on spending cuts," Jan. 10, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Fact-checking Democratic attacks on Marco Rubio’s statements on Social Security and Medicare," Sept. 16, 2016

Interview, Mark McCullough, AFSCME spokesman, Sept. 23, 2016

Interview, David Bills, University of Iowa education professor, Sept. 23, 2016

Interview, Michael Ahrens, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio campaign spokesman, Sept. 23, 2016

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