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Obama Draws Fire for Proposing New Education Agency to Develop Classroom Gadgets

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President Obama prepares to board Air Force One before his departure from Andrews Air Force Base March 8.AP

In the middle of a tense debate on Capitol Hill over spending cuts, the White House outlined its vision Tuesday for a new Education Department agency that -- at a cost of $90 million the first year -- would give companies money to craft high-tech gadgets for the classroom. 

The new program would finance research in what President Obama calls "educational technology." 

But coming exactly one week after a government report exposed billions of dollars in duplicative federal programs, including in the education field, the proposal drew sharp criticism from Republicans and watchdogs in Washington calling for fiscal restraint.  

"Congress should be debating how to spend existing education dollars more wisely, if at all, rather than finding new dollars to spend," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in a statement to FoxNews.com. "Since 1965, the federal government has spent $2 trillion on education without improving outcomes. Pouring billions of dollars into the same system and expecting a different result is closer to the definition of insanity than investment."

Joshua Shields, a spokesman for Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said the Education Department already has enough resources to launch such a program without asking for more money. Noem, a Tea Party-aligned freshman, sits on the House education committee. 

"We need to tighten our belts. We need to do more with less, and this doesn't seem to be a step in that direction at all," Shields said. 

Obama, who detailed the proposal Tuesday afternoon in Boston, first made the pitch in his 2012 budget request to Congress, calling for $90 million next year to jump-start the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education. Obama also devoted a chunk of his State of the Union address to stressing the need for education investment. 

"We're working to make sure every school has a 21st century curriculum," Obama said Tuesday, adding that he wants students "stuck on a video game that's teaching you something other than just blowing something up." 

It's no accident that the proposed agency acronym rhymes with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) -- the administration openly compared its proposal to the military agency that helped support the development of the Internet and other breakthroughs. 

"(The proposed agency) will aggressively pursue technological breakthroughs that will transform educational technology and empower teaching and learning the way that DARPA did and how that supported the development of the Internet, GPS and robotics," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on a conference call Monday previewing the announcement. 

"Imagine if we could have a digital tutor that could allow a student to catch up two grade levels in a year," Duncan said. "Today, unfortunately, we greatly under-invest in R and D in education." 

But to some, the proposal didn't square with the fiscal environment lawmakers are facing -- one in which the federal government is running up trillions of dollars in debt over the next decade and is under pressure to cut spending. 

"This is laughable in the face of our current budget crisis, to be proposing any new programs whatsoever," said Leslie Paige, with Citizens Against Government Waste. 

The Government Accountability Office a week ago released a bombshell report which lawmakers said at the time could provide a roadmap for future cuts. The report outlined billions in overlapping and duplicative programs. In the education field, GAO found 82 programs spread across 10 separate agencies dealing with teacher quality. 

Asked about the president's latest proposal, former Rep. Ernest Istook said it "sounds like a huge overlap with existing programs." 

Istook, who now works with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the government could surely find an existing program through which to fund educational technology research. 

"It shows the (GAO) report is still gathering dust on a White House shelf," Istook said.