The White House released its federal budget proposal this morning, and, as Donald Trump promised, many departments are facing cuts, including a proposed 13.5 percent cut to Education. The budget proposal also holds to the president’s campaign promise to increase funding for school choice, by funding charter schools, permitting students’ funds to follow them to different public schools, and creating a voucher program to help families pay for private-school tuition.
One can see Trump’s fingerprints on the proposal, particularly where it declares that various programs are lacking or failing, and requests their elimination. Indeed, four of the ten items in the proposal’s “Education” section begin with the word “eliminates.” In total the plan cuts $9.2 billion.
On school choice, however, the proposal calls for “Increas[ing] investments in public and private school choice by $1.4 billion . . . ramping up to an annual total of $20 billion.” Exactly where those billions will go is not laid out, but the proposal includes a 2018 investment of “$250 million for a new private school choice program,” which would presumably entail vouchers. (A tax credit for donating to private-school scholarships is likely to appear in Republicans’ tax-reform bill.) National Alliance for Public Charter Schools president Nina Rees called the proposed $168 million for charters “critically needed funding” and said it would “[help] to expand high-quality public education options for all children.”
The White House also requested additional funding for Title I — which provides billions for schools with more poor children — with the stipulation that funds would follow children to the public school of their choice. This is termed “portability” in education circles, and critics on the left argue that it spreads students (and their funds) around too much, since federal funding through Title I compounds based on concentration of poor children. This incentivizes keeping them in the same (often lackluster) schools. If funding portability does, in fact, stretch money for poor children thinly across school districts, then adding $1 billion to Title I could be Trump’s way of keeping schools in low-income areas from seeing their funding drop, while still injecting choice into the system.
These moves could shift the ground in American education, but, alas, it is the cuts that are grabbing the most attention. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said about the cuts, “They do what we feared would happen when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was nominated: defund public schools with the aim of destabilizing and destroying them.” More measured commentators accused Trump of “slashing” Education, which from a purely budgetary standpoint is true enough, since Education Department funds usually rise year after year. Others have stated that this proves education is low on Trump’s list of priorities, which ignores the long-standing conservative critique that stopping some forms of federal meddling will ultimately strengthen education.
The federal programs that Trump explicitly proposes eliminating are the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program. It also sets aside for reduction or elimination “over 20 categorical programs” which are deemed ineffective.
Many of these are somewhat soft targets; Impact Aid Support Payments for Federal Property, for instance, is something that Obama also proposed ending. But eliminating the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants opens Trump up to criticism that he would be taking money from poor people who want to send their kids to college. (The White House proposed eliminating the grants on the grounds that Pell Grants are more effective.)
It should be noted that Trump is staying the course on many socially conscious aspects of the Education Department’s role; students with disabilities aren’t losing anything, nor are historically black colleges or minority-serving institutions. By targeting programs deemed ineffective, Trump can argue that these budget cuts aren’t hurting anyone in need, while the issues he campaigned on get the money he always said they should. Presidents often propose tough scrutiny of federal expenditures, but this plan shows Trump taking another step toward fulfilling that goal.