The Federal Budget and Public Education: What Do Current Trends Mean?

President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal on Monday.

Perhaps—for very good reasons—the federal budgeting process is confusing to you.  You may remember that in the wee hours of the morning last Friday, February 9, 2018, Congress finally passed a 2018 budget deal and raised spending caps for 2018, although lawmakers still have more work to do to finish up budget appropriations for this year. What is supposed to happen is that the President releases his budget proposal in mid-February; then Congress considers and modifies it and is supposed to pass a final budget for the following year by September 30.  For months now, due to Congressional disfunction, the federal government has been operating on a succession of continuing resolutions—with threatened government shutdowns.

If you compare President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal for the Department of Education to what has Congress has actually discussed, you’ll see that Congress has not considered appropriating funding for many of the President’s and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s priorities from last year.  For example, Congress did not even take up the proposal to expand school choice. Neither has Congress de-funded the federal after school program for poor communities, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

Before examining what is in Trump’s 2019 budget proposal for education, it is therefore important to consider the warning of Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s two federal education reporters: “(H)ow seriously should you take this budget blueprint anyway?  If history’s any guide, it won’t go anywhere in Congress, where lawmakers are not in the habit of just rubber-stamping presidents’ spending plans… And the last plan’s signature initiatives—three different school choice expansions—have been all but ignored.”

On the other hand, the proposal is a good indication of the priorities of the Trump administration as far as education goes, and the picture isn’t encouraging.  Even though last week Congress lifted the spending caps Congress imposed on itself several years ago, the President’s 2019 budget proposal significantly cuts funding for the Department of Education.  Here is Sheryl V. Cohen, Executive Director of the Committee for Education Funding: “The President’s budget flies in the face of Congress’s action last week to raise investments in domestic priorities that matter to American families and communities. Even though Congress just reached a budget deal that increases non-defense funding for next year by $68 billion, the President’s budget slashes FY 2019 funding for education by $3.6 billion (5.4 percent) below current levels.  The President’s budget echoes his previous request, outright eliminating many needed programs—such as programs that hire and train teachers and principals, provide safe after school learning environments, improve literacy, and help the poorest students attend college.”

The President’s proposed 2019 budget flat-funds the Department of Education’s two largest K-12 public school programs, Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act despite the enormous need across America’s school districts for increases to these programs that support schools serving concentrations of poor children and children with special needs. Once again, Trump proposes eliminating Title II teacher grants and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers; Ujifusa points out that the elimination of these two programs adds up to $3.1 billion of the $3.6 billion of proposed cuts to the Department of Education. Trump also proposes adding a $1 billion school choice “Opportunity Grants” program.

More concerning than any particular budget line in the President’s new proposal is the fact that federal education funding is already low and this budget does nothing to increase it.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in a November 2017 report that, “Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Sheryl Cohen of the Committee for Education Funding examines long term cuts in more detail: “Education funding is already low—Congress has eliminated 50 education programs since 2010, and federal education spending is currently below the 2011 level (it’s even farther below in inflation-adjusted terms).  In fact, only two cents of every federal dollar is spent on education even though we know education investments pay dividends.”

One must consider the new budget proposal in the context of the huge tax cuts for the wealthy that Congress recently passed. It would appear that the President hopes to offset the lost revenue resulting from tax cuts with reductions in vital programs for the most vulnerable Americans to help offset a growing federal deficit.

The executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein describes the overall impact of current budgetary policy: “The budget comes just weeks after the President and Congress enacted a top-heavy tax cut, one that the Tax Policy Center estimated will give those who make more than $1 million a year an average annual tax cut of $70,000…. Nevertheless, the budget calls for slashing one program after another that provides basic assistance for large numbers of Americans of modest means…. It proposes once again to repeal the ACA’s coverage expansions and gouge Medicaid deeply on top of that…. It proposes deep cuts in basic nutrition, housing and income assistance for millions of Americans below or close to the poverty line… For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program alone (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)—which research shows produces important long-term benefits for children—would be slashed a stunning $213 billion (or nearly 30 percent) over ten years.”

Decades of research demonstrate that concentrated poverty affects children and, in the aggregate, is correlated with low school achievement. Thankfully, Congress has finally reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but food stamps and Medicaid are also essential programs that families count on to survive. In fact Medicaid has become a lifeline for public schools themselves.   Kaiser Health News describes the programs Medicaid currently pays for in public schools—programs that may be threatened with the kind of cuts President Trump proposes in his 2019 budget outline: “Medicaid, created in 1965 to provide health insurance to the poor, now functions as a lifeline for millions of American students… as well as hundreds of school districts across the country…. The public insurance program has evolved so that it now finances myriad education-related services, including transportation for kids with disabilities, school clinics and counseling for children from turbulent backgrounds… Medicaid will reimburse districts for in-school vision and hearing exams, occupational therapy for special-education students, even diabetes and asthma management.  It covers wheelchairs and other medical devices so a student can attend class, and… mental health services.”

One thought on “The Federal Budget and Public Education: What Do Current Trends Mean?

  1. The feds need to get out of education altogether, and leave education to the states/municipalities. The congress needs to abolish the Dept of Education (Ron Reagan promised to do this, but never came through). Why send your tax dollars to WashDC, and then have most of it lost in bureaucratic friction? Then you get 50c on the dollar sent back to your school district with all kinds of strings attached!!!
    States/municipalities are much closer to the people, and more attuned to the specific needs of children in THAT STATE!

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