ABOUT THOSE PELL GRANT CUTS…. The White House budget proposes a variety of spending cuts, but the reductions to the Pell grant program stands out, in large part because it’s so unexpected. President Obama has made education such a high priority, and Democrats have been so critical of Republican efforts to gut education spending, it seemed like these cuts were out of character.

But there’s more to it than may be apparent at first glance. First, Dems’ criticisms of House Republicans on education are entirely accurate — the GOP plan calls for devastating cuts to Head Start, Pell grants, and Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), among other things.

Does the White House plan undercut Democrats’ criticism of the GOP plan? Not really.

What Republicans are proposing is straight-up slashing of the Pell grant program — those who rely on the grants to pay tuition will just be out of luck. The administration’s proposal only cuts Pell grants for summer classes, and it’s based on the belief that the grants cost more than expected, but didn’t, in practice, produce the intended result (improving graduation rates).

The administration decided that the answer was no and that eliminating the program was the kind of budget cut that the government should be making, given the deficit. One reason to be skeptical that summer grants are making a big difference is that enrollment in summer classes has risen only marginally in the last year.

Jonathan Cohn added:

[I]f Obama gets his way, Pell Grants would provide basically the same academic-year assistance to basically the same population that it does now. The one key difference would be grants for summer tuition. They are a new feature of the Pell Grant program and many low-income students now use them. Obama would eliminate those grants.

But Obama’s proposed cut comes after two years of bolstering student aid. And it is far smaller than the reduction than the GOP would impose. While House Republicans haven’t provided details of their long-term plans for the program, their rhetoric and their existing proposals suggest they would cut Pell Grant funding at least in half. Awards would drop dramatically, starting with next fall’s grants, and making it difficult if not impossible for millions of students to attend college.

When I asked around on this, reliable sources also emphasized that the White House’s proposed “cuts” to Pell grants affects a fairly new program — it’s only within the last year that students could receive two Pell grants in one year (one for the academic year, one for the summer).

If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be any cuts to the program. But the administration’s proposal obviously isn’t in the same league as what Republicans are proposing, and Obama’s recommended cuts don’t forfeit Dems’ credibility when it comes to slamming the GOP’s efforts to gut education spending.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.