Sunday’s 2017 Budget Agreement Isn’t as Bad for Education as We Feared

James Hohmann of the Washington Post explains the significance of the budget deal reached on Sunday night to keep he government operating until the 1st of October: “A spending agreement was reached… that will keep the government funded through the end of September.  This will be the first significant bipartisan measure passed by Congress since Donald Trump took office.  The White House agreed to punt on a lot of the president’s top priorities until this fall to avert a shutdown on Friday…. But Democrats are surprised by just how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal considering that Republicans have unified control of government.”

Since October the government has been operating on what is called a continuing resolution. Sunday night’s agreement merely replaces the continuing resolution until the fiscal year ends on September 30th. During this period, Congress and the administration will be negotiating the 2018 fiscal year federal budget.

So… what about the education priorities in the budget agreement reached on Sunday?  In the Department of Education as in other areas, the administration has been willing to set aside  some of the priorities proposed in  President Trump’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposal—or at least to delay the fight with Congress.  And for many of the Department’s most important programs, at least until September 30, Congress managed to keep federal education pretty much at the levels we have expected.

Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week that the Department of Education’s largest and most important grant programs will remain intact: “Federal lawmakers have agreed to relatively small spending increases for Title I programs to districts and for special education…. Title I spending on disadvantaged students would rise by $100 million up to $15.5 billion from fiscal 2016-2017, along with $450 million in new money that was already slated to be shifted over from the now-defunct School Improvement Grants program.  And state grants for special education would increase by $90 million up to $12 billion… The budget deal doesn’t appear to include a new federal school choice program, a top K-12 priority for the Trump administration.”  Omitted from the new agreement is the President’s proposal for $1 billion added to Title I, but diverted  for Title I Portablity vouchers.

Ujifusa adds that despite fears that President Trump and Education Secretary Besy DeVos would destroy the the Office for Civil Rights, in the new 2017 agreement Congress increases funding for the Office of Civil Rights to $109 million. Congress boosts Head Start (administered by Health and Human Services)  by $85 million to a total of $9.3 billion. Congress increases Impact Aid for schools on military bases and American Indian Reservations by $25 million to a total of $1.3 billion. The 21st Century Learning Center after-school program that Trump threatened in his 2018 budget proposal to eliminate altogether is increased modestly by Congress in this new agreement, up $25 million to a total of $1.2 billion.

In the new agreement, Congress increases funding through this year for college preparation programs Trump cuts in his 2018 budget proposal.  Here is Danielle Douglas-Gabriel for the Washington Post: “Sunday’s budget deal also increases funding for two college preparation programs, TRIO and GEAR UP, that the Trump administration has earmarked for millions of dollars in cuts. Congress has agreed to up the budget for TRIO by $50 million, while pouring an additional $17 million into GEAR UP…  TRIO, named for three initiatives that date to the 1960s, houses programs such as Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services that aid high school students in getting into college or keeping them on track once they enroll. GEAR Up (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) serves entire classes of children in high-poverty districts through grants to states and community partnerships.”

Douglas-Gabriel also reports that in Sunday’s agreement, Congress endorses summer Pell Grants: “The budget deal expands the Pell Grant program for low-income college students by offering up to $2,960—half of the maximum award—to recipients taking summer courses during the 2017-2018 academic year. That way, students can take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of debt… Instead the White House budget maintains the current funding level for Pell grants.”  Both the President’s budget and Congress eliminate a $3.9 billion reserve in the Pell Grant budget, as explained here by POLITICO: “Democrats and student aid advocates had pushed against such a move, which they call ‘raiding’ the Pell grant’s surplus. Still, the bill (the Sunday night budget agreement) calls for the same level of discretionary spending on the Pell grant program this year. Because of mandatory funding increases, the maximum Pell grant award will increase $105 to $5,920 starting in the coming 2017-18 school year.”

As part of the 2017 budget agreement, however, Emma Brown reports that  Congress is fulfilling one of the priorities of President Trump and Betsy DeVos.  Sunday night’s 2017 budget agreement reauthorizes—through fiscal year 2019—the federally funded Washington, D.C. school voucher privatization program.  Trump and DeVos prioritized D.C. vouchers in the 2018 budget proposal.  Ironically a new Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was just completed and published by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance—an evaluation that deems the program unsuccessful in raising the achievement of the students enrolled.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown describing the program and summarizing the results of the new evaluation: “The D.C. program serves about 1,100 students, giving them up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school. Participating private schools must be accredited by 2021 but otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and demonstrating compliance with health and safety laws.  D.C. students who used vouchers had significantly lower math scores a year after joining the program, on average, than students who applied for a voucher through a citywide lottery but did not receive one.  For voucher students in kindergarten through fifth grade, reading scores were also significantly lower… For voucher recipients coming from a low-performing public school—the population that the voucher program primarily aims to reach—attending a private school had no effect on achievement.  But for voucher recipients coming from higher-performing public schools, the negative effect was particularly large.”

Andrew Ujifusa, in Education Week describes other programs whose funding is reduced by Congress in Sunday’s 2017 agreement. The office of Education Innovation and Research is cut by $20 million. Like President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, Congress also cuts Title II grants for teacher development; the new agreement cuts the program by $294 million.  A new Title IV block grant under the Every Student Succeeds Act is funded in the new agreement at $400 million, “a lot less than the $1.6 billion envisioned for Title IV under ESSA.”

Things may not be great, but—at least for now—our fears about federal funding for education were worse than what is turning out to be the reality.

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