Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January 2014. (Preston Michelson/MNS)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January 2014. (Preston Michelson/MNS)

WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the administration’s plan to expand the reach of public education to community colleges as he presented the White House’s 2016 budget proposals to lawmakers on Wednesday.

“I think the world has changed,” Duncan said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, “and our vision is a Pre-K-14 education.”

The highlight of this effort is President Barack Obama’s America’s College Promise, which would make community college free for students who earn at least a 2.5 grade point average.

The program, according to White House projections, would require $1.365 billion in funding in 2016 and $60 billion total over the next 10 years.

The significant investment in community colleges, though, seems misplaced, said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, the subcommittee’s chairman.

“Community college is actually fairly reasonably priced in this country compared to four-year institutions,” Cole told Duncan. “I’m a little mystified why that is the focus of so much resources as opposed to either bringing down the longer-term cost of a more extensive education because it seems to me that we’re more or less adequately funded.”

Republican Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas questioned Duncan about the value of a technical school education or an associate’s degree to employers.

Womack’s concern is that the Education Department does not do enough to connect students with technical skills to employers, a problem that could be worse if the proposal is implemented.

“It is my opinion, and maybe you can convince me that I’m wrong, but we’ve kind of mislead, I think, an entire generation of young people to thinking that the only means to success is to make them a college graduate,” Womack said. “I want you to help me understand how we can do a better job of linking people that are technical-career-bound students [to employers] as opposed to trying to push them all into a college environment.”

Duncan said the administration will ask Congress for $200 million to invest in the relationship between community colleges and local companies.

Members of the president’s own party also had concerns. Democrat Barbara Lee of California asked Duncan how the community college plan would impact support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“I want to make sure that the [community college] funding does not put HBCUs and any of our minority-serving institutions at risk,” Lee said. “I want to make sure that both budgets are fully funded and that we don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Duncan assured Lee that the plan is not a “one versus the other” situation. HBCUs, he said, could see major benefits because more minority students would be able to attend two-year schools before potentially moving on to HBCUs to obtain a four-year degree.

The budget also includes a proposal for $75 billion in funding to support universal access to preschool for 4-year-olds from middle- and low-income families.

Along with expanding the nation’s notion of basic education requirements, Duncan said the budget also emphasizes “equity and opportunity for all students.” The proposed plan calls for a $1 billion increase in Title I funding for states to support high-need students from low-income families.

The program has been at the center of controversy in recent weeks as a Republican-sponsored bill in the House to reauthorize a national elementary and secondary education program proposed drastic changes to the portability of Title I funds. Duncan said the bill, if enacted, would take money away from underserved school districts and give it to some of the most affluent. The increase in funding for schools with disadvantaged students, he said, is important as student need continues to grow.

Taken together, the initiatives add up to a $70.7 billion request, an increase of 5.4 percent, or $3.6 billion, over 2015 education spending.

The subcommittee will markup the budget before passing it along to the full committee. Then, following further review, Congress would ultimately have to approve the full budget.

“If you take into account inflation, education funding is 10 percent below 2008,” Duncan said. “It’s time to turn that around and invest in the country’s most important asset, our people.”