US Education Chief Warns Against Cuts

U.S. President Barack Obama reads a card during a game with children in a per-kindergarten classroom at College Heights early childhood learning center in Decatur, Georgia, February 14, 2013.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the latest in a series of Obama administration officials to make ominous predictions about the effects of the so-called sequester.

He told reporters Wednesday that political bickering over the automatic $85 billion budget cuts is putting the U.S. education system at a competitive disadvantage.

“So while we are having this conversation about fewer teachers, fewer school days, less opportunities to go to Head Start, less ability to pay for college, other nations, this is not how they are looking to improve their education system," Duncan said. "This is not the conversation that is happening with our competitors in Singapore, in South Korea, in China, in India.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, seen here last month in Washington, warns the looming sequester will hurt the nation's schoolchildren.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, seen here last month in Washington, warns the looming sequester will hurt the nation's schoolchildren.
Duncan said lawmakers should instead be focusing on improving early education, college graduation rates, and school security.

“For us to be thinking about taking steps backwards in all of these areas because folks in Washington cannot get their act together, and a level of dysfunction in Congress that, it is just like unimaginable to me," he said. "I cannot tell you how troubling that is to me, and frankly, how angry it makes me feel.”

Duncan’s appearance at the White House briefing follows those by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

President Obama went to the shipbuilding city of Newport News, Virginia on Tuesday to warn the budget reductions could erode U.S. defense readiness.

The president will discuss the sequester Friday in a White House meeting with top Republicans House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Democrats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The meeting takes place several hours after government budgets are to be slashed.

“He [Obama] hopes that they will have a constructive discussion about doing something to prevent sequestration from causing the kinds of impacts that Secretary Duncan just described to you,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

The meeting will be the president’s first with congressional leaders since late last year.

Obama has been calling for a mix of budget cuts and tax increases to help reduce the federal deficit.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader McConnell, say they will hold firm against higher taxes and insist on cutting the deficit by reducing spending.

“When the president goes off on a campaign for higher taxes instead of working with Republicans to replace the sequester with smarter cuts, and when Senate Democrats put forward tax hike gimmicks instead of negotiating serious spending cut solutions, Americans feel like they are not being listened to,” McConnell said.

Senate Democrats are proposing legislation this week to delay the automatic cuts until the end of the year. Republicans are certain to defeat the measure.