Blog: The Educated Reporter

Trump Budget Signals Education Priorities

President Donald Trump’s first budget blueprint begins to flesh out the areas in which he sees an important federal role in education — most notably expanding school choice — and those he doesn’t. At the same time, it raises questions about the fate of big-ticket items, including aid to improve teacher quality and support after-school programs. 

To be sure, the budget request Trump unveiled this week is far from a done deal: It’s more like an opening bid. Congress, even with Republicans holding the majority in both chambers, is not going to rubber-stamp the Trump budget. The House and Senate will hash out the details and then send a final package for the president to sign or veto.

But in the meantime, the president’s budget plan provides some details on the direction Trump wants to go on education, a topic he discussed little during the campaign and since his election. Until now, Trump’s agenda has mainly boiled down to more school choice and opposition to the Common Core standards adopted by many states.

That said, “details” might overstate what’s in the budget plan. The description of Trump’s proposed education budget sticks to broad brush strokes and remains incomplete. It’s less than two pages long. And it’s silent on the fate of some programs.

It’s worth noting that federal support accounts for only about 8 to 12 percent of total K-12 funding in the nation’s public schools — the rest comes from state and local revenue sources. But many education advocates say those federal dollars are still badly needed in a lot of communities, especially those serving low-income families.

Without question, the blueprint reaffirms that school choice is a top priority for Trump (a stance not much in doubt, given his selection of Betsy DeVos as education secretary). Trump is proposing $1.4 billion as a down payment of sorts, as Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog put it, on his campaign pledge to spend $20 billion on school choice. It’s the first item listed in the two-page summary of the U.S. Department of Education request.

That figure would include a $1 billion increase to the nearly $15 billion currently allocated under the Title I program for disadvantaged students. But as Politics K-12 explains:

“… that money would come up with a twist: States and districts would be encouraged to use the funds for a system of “student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and Local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.”

Having dollars follow students is known as “portability,” and some Republican lawmakers tried to have a version of this strategy included in the rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act. (For more on portability, check out this handy slide show.)

Trump proposes “$250 million for a new private school choice program,” without offering any details beyond that phrase. The plan also calls for an increase of $168 million for the federal charter schools program, which currently receives more than $300 million each year.

At the higher education level, the budget document outlines plans for a few programs, including a pledge to “safeguard” the Pell Grant program for low-income students and leave the program on “sound footing for the next decade.”

But as Inside Higher Ed explains, “Many advocates for low-income students say the opposite is true. By taking about a third of the program’s multi-billion-dollar surplus and cutting other college access programs, they assert, the new administration would jeopardize Pell’s long-term sustainability and harm the prospects of low-income students.”

The proposal would level-fund federal aid for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions. And, as The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, the Trump plan would make nearly $200 million in cuts for “federal programs that help disadvantaged students make it into and through college. Those include an umbrella of eight outreach programs, called TRIO, that support the progress of low-income, first-generation, and disabled students, starting in middle school.”

Overall, Trump’s budget calls for cutting about 13 percent from the U.S. Department of Education’s operating budget, currently about $68 million annually. Programs that are deemed redundant or ineffectual are also at risk of being eliminated.

But how to determine which programs are “ineffectual” hasn’t been spelled out. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Wednesday that after-school programs haven’t shown benefits and aren’t needed, for example. But some researchers – along with a host of educators and nonprofit organizations serving working families — immediately disagreed.

The feds currently allocate about $1.2 billion in grants for what’s known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides aid for after-school and summer learning programs to over 1.5 million students each year. The majority of the participants come from low-income families. As Emma Brown reported for The Washington Post, Mulvaney’s claim rang hollow to some experts:

The administration argues that there is no evidence the program has been effective. But Heather Weiss of the independent Global Family Research Project — who has studied after-school programs for nearly 20 years — said that’s not true.

“There is a lot of evidence,” she said. “Engaging kids in high-quality after-school programs, many of which are supported by 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, results in kids doing better in school. They’re more likely to graduate and to excel in the labor market.”

So what’s next? The budget proposal will likely undergo major restructuring before it becomes official, and it won’t take effect for schools before the 2018-19 academic year, experts say. The already-lengthy appropriations process isn’t likely to speed up this time around, given the pushback that’s already been seen from both sides of the aisle. While lawmakers haggle over their pet priorities, special interest and advocacy groups will try to rally support not only from individual lawmakers but from the public as well.