Discussion: (1 comment)
Comments are closed.
A public policy blog from AEI
In March, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reportedly told a private gathering of left-leaning education reformers that charter leaders should refuse additional federal funds that would be available to them under Trump’s proposed budget, which sought to cut federal education spending by 13%. Duncan’s reasoning seems to be that Trump’s proposal was more than draconian cost cutting, and amounted to an attack on traditional public schools (TPSs). Charter school leaders who benefit from it would be accepting blood money.
Charter leaders are unlikely to reject new funding, but many have made clear their concerns about Trump’s budget, which has not received much serious support since March. While July’s House budget proposal included significant cuts to education, they were much smaller than Trump’s. Despite the reduced likelihood of Trump-sized cuts, Duncan’s position has not softened. This week, he stood by his earlier statement, telling Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum, “If [DeVos] is cutting money for traditional public schools and putting money into charters . . . I’ve told them not to take the money. I think that’s blood money.”
Underneath Duncan’s hyperbolic statements lies a trap, not only for fiscal conservatives, but for anyone who wants to keep cutting federal education spending on the table. School districts receive funding from an array of local, state and federal sources, but their spending is loosely tied to those sources. As such, districts facing shortfalls often shift funds from other sources to make up for them. The bottom line for this logic is that, since its sources are fungible, any cut to a specific program is a cut to traditional public schools writ large.
This prevailing logic is a short path to polarization, because it identifies public schools’ friends by their refusal to cut funds, and their enemies by their determination to do so. Duncan’s “blood money” comes in if charters reap rewards from a budget that cuts traditional public school funding.
The Trump administration keeps playing right into this polarization trap. Its skinny budget looked like an attempt to reach a predetermined cost-cutting target rather than a measured plan to curb wasteful spending without unduly harming public schools. While it included some arguably reasonable cuts — such as the largest, a $2 billion cut from Title II for teacher professional development and class-size reduction — the range of cuts, along with the hollow and repetitive justifications for them, only added to the appearance of a brutal cost-cutting exercise. Add the Department of Education’s premium placed on choice programs, absent any significant active efforts to support traditional public schools, and they set the stage for polarization. The upshot is that Trump, and by association Republicans, are enemies of public education; friends resist.
Everyone should resist the faulty logic underlying this trap. For starters, it assumes that current federal funding for traditional public schools is right, at least in terms of the amount. It also assumes that federal support is an appropriate source for particular programs, such as teacher development. Furthermore, it ignores local districts’ incentives to be budget maximizers, especially regarding federal funds. Preconceptions like these reduce the potential for nuanced conversation about the who, what, why, and how of education policy to one blunt question: how much?
Polarization on education spending creates major challenges to forging sound policy any time soon. The tendency toward kneejerk divisiveness means the House’s smaller and arguably reasonable cuts, mostly consisting of $2 billion in Title II funds, are predestined to be painted by the resistance as another instance of Trumpian disregard for traditional public schools. This despite Duncan’s historical support for — you guessed it — challenging the wisdom of Title II spending. In a 2012 talk, Duncan said of Title II,
So as we fight for additional resources, we also have to be honest about that $2.5 billion investment . . . to see what is necessary to really help teachers master their craft and hone their skills. I think the honest answer is that, in most places, we are not even close.
Duncan has also supported charter school growth, and taken heat for it over the years. On top of that, Duncan spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, where I work, in 2010 about how public education’s new normal is to do more with less, and that schools need not be of lesser quality because of it. Duncan’s record certainly does not mean he should support any particular cuts, but it does shine a light on where common ground could be found. Polarizing comments about blood money cast shade there instead.
The House budget is a net reduction in spending by cutting Title II completely and trimming after school grants significantly. But it does provides modest increases in federal programs supporting both charters (an 8% increase) and traditional public schools (20% bump for Title IV). Reasonable people can argue about whether cuts like those to Title II should be partial, or phased in to give traditional public schools time to adjust to major budget changes; I would be one of them. But it’s a start, and one that a constructive argument can build on. We are all worse off if everyone digs their heels in, leaving no chance at fruitful discussion.
There may be some solace in this story that does not require accepting Trump’s clumsy budget proposal or the polarizing responses of the resistance. The reactions of some of the attendees at that March meeting show that progress is possible when cooler heads prevail. One attendee indicated there were “some people who wanted to take this more punchy, assertive approach and there were some people . . . who were less inclined to do that.” And some charter leaders took a moderated course, publicly opposing Trump’s budget and expressing concerns that bridged the charter-traditional public school divide. And months later they face a far more reasonable House budget, which, though imperfect, shows some cooler heads in Congress remain. If education reformers can put forth budgets about which reasonable people can argue and put aside histrionic talk of blood money, they may yet stave off blood feuds that inhibit federal education policy that is both supportive and prudent.
Comments are closed.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2018 American Enterprise Institute