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On Tuesday, the Trump administration released its 2018 budget. Those hoping for a clearer picture of the administration’s plans for K-12 education were likely disappointed, as little changed between the “skinny budget” and the longer version (on the latter, you can find a summary here and details here). Congress is likely to ignore much of the budget, but it is worth reviewing because it’s an opportunity for the administration to flesh out its ideas in some detail.
The bottom line remained a $9 billion (13%) cut in federal education spending. More than half of that came from cuts to postsecondary spending, but there were sizable decreases in K-12 spending as well. The budget calls for big-ticket decreases from dropping teacher and principal development funding ($2 billion), 21st Century Community Learning Centers ($1.2 billion), a block grant under Title IV part A ($400 million), and Comprehensive Literacy Development grants ($190 million). Preschool development grant funding ($250 million) was cut from the Department of Education (ED) budget and moved to the Department of Health and Human Services. Funding for K-12 and adult career and technical education was cut by about $260 million, and funding for dozens of smaller programs, including gifted and talented education, was trimmed or eliminated.
These spending reductions don’t follow a clear-cut logic. The published budget justifications repeatedly contended that cut programs were not proven to be effective and could be replaced by other federal, state, local, or private funds. Of course, that logic can be applied to almost any program. The cuts the administration chose are what would follow from setting a target and then picking programs to ax to get there.
Whether one thinks these cuts are a good thing largely depends on one’s priors. Those with a desire for smaller government, and less government spending, may see cost cutting as an appropriate end in itself. But to those inclined to believe most ED programs are effective and prudent, the cuts may seem stingy and shortsighted. Without explicit rationales to support them, the administration’s cuts look more like ploys to cut spending than actual plans for reshaping the role of ED.
Without explicit rationales to support them, the administration’s cuts look more like ploys to cut spending than actual plans for reshaping the role of ED.
Notably, almost all of Trump’s budgeted K-12 spending increases focus on school choice. The biggest increase is $1 billion in Title I spending to fund Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) grants. These competitive grants would push districts to adopt weighted student funding formulas and open enrollment policies so that funding can follow students to their choice of district schools. (The Trump budget leaves out the $550 million increase in Title I funding that Congress passed this year, meaning the $1 billion should probably be viewed as a reallocation of $550 million to FOCUS grants, with a net addition of $450 million.) A $250 million increase in Education Innovation and Research (EIR) funding would create competitive grants to provide private school choice and research outcomes. Charter school funding would also increase by $167 million. The increases total over $1.4 billion, a far cry from the $20 billion Trump promised for school choice during the campaign, but still a significant down payment.
Do these increases suggest a clear and coherent plan for ED? Both Trump and Secretary DeVos have fervently explained that they support increasing school choice, but the added detail in this budget doesn’t get us much closer to understanding how the administration expects the programs to work.
For instance, the $1 billion FOCUS grants are included under Title I, even though that is a poor fit. Title I’s purpose is to support low-income students. FOCUS grants would let Title I funds follow low-income students to their chosen schools, but the primary change would be to district policies affecting all students, not poor students specifically. In addition, funding is not enough because Title I law doesn’t include space for this program. Congress would have to change Title I legislation to create FOCUS grants—no small feat in the current political environment. Even if that succeeded, it’s unclear how FOCUS grants would effectively improve choice, and it all depends on what “open enrollment” would entail. Complete open enrollment that ends all residential assignment could be a game changer, if any district would take on such a disruption. If it simply increased access to existing schools that are not full, and empty seats in high quality schools are hard to come by, the upside is pretty limited. Without a viable legislative strategy, a real focus on poor students, and a clarified operational approach, FOCUS grants are more a pipe dream than a plan for increasing choice.
On first glance, it might appear that those who want to rein in federal education spending or support school choice should celebrate the administration’s budget. But absent a compelling and convincing underlying logic, it is unlikely that Congress will take this budget seriously in the short term.
The $250 million increase would triple EIR funding, with the whole increase devoted to private school choice programs and research. Traditionally, this vein of funding has been supplemental, supporting innovations and associated research. Next to $2 billion in total state private choice spending, a $250 million (or 12.5%) increase suggests EIR will be a conduit for federal funding to go directly to private school choice programs, with research requirements as a secondary consideration. Such an approach may boost school choice in the short run, and add to the research base, but it’s not a sustainable foundation for long term programs.
The $166 million increase for charter funding would clearly promote school choice, and charter schools have a strong track record. Compared to the hope for legislation enabling FOCUS grants, or an open-ended EIR increase, charter funding has the most established base to build on. Curiously, though, it is the smallest of the three increases.
These three funding increases are choice-centered, but don’t reflect any more coherence than the cuts. Each promotes choice as a simple good: more is better, so find a way to spend on public school choice, private school choice, and charters, even if the logic behind the funding increases is full of holes. Likewise, with the administration’s cuts, the logic appears to be that if education spending is too high, cut wherever you can.
On first glance, it might appear that those who want to rein in federal education spending or support school choice should celebrate the administration’s budget. But absent a compelling and convincing underlying logic, it is unlikely that Congress will take this budget seriously in the short term. In turn, that will make it even harder to gain traction on these issues in the long run, potentially harming the very causes it seeks to promote.
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