Trump’s Proposed 2018 Budget for K-12 Education: What It Means

Yesterday the Trump administration released what’s being called its “skinny” budget.  A president’s budget proposal does NOT work like an executive order, however.  It is merely a declaration of the president’s priorities, and it must be discussed and enacted by Congress, which then appropriates the money.

And this is a budget that outlines only what is called “discretionary” spending. That is the part that actually gets appropriated every year, and it is a very small part of the federal budget, which mostly goes to “mandatory” programs, another term for entitlements.

A large part of discretionary spending is for the military. And the military is definitely a priority of Donald Trump’s.  Yesterday’s budget proposal adds $52 billion to the military and a 7 percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security and a 6 percent increase for Veterans Affairs.

VOX explains the nature of “non-defense” federal discretionary spending: “This is the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low-and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.” Yesterday’s budget cuts non-defense discretionary spending in order for the federal government to ask for large increases in the military and homeland security.

Here are just some of the percentage losses reported by the NY Times for departments whose programs are likely directly to affect children and families: Education, -14 percent; Health and Human Services, -16 percent; and Housing and Urban Development, -12 percent.  The cuts are likely to affect public housing and subsidies for housing vouchers, may affect support for homeless shelters, and will eliminate after-school programs.  Being erased altogether are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps very poor people pay gas bills in the winter and the Legal Services Corporation. School lunch, school breakfast and summer feeding programs have been made into mandatory spending and are not covered by this budget. We’ll have to watch for a later, more detailed budget to observe these programs, and we can hope they will be spared. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is slightly reduced from $6.4 billion to $6.2 billion in Trump’s proposed budget. There are also significant cuts to health programs and much debate currently about the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal reporter explains that Trump proposes to cut the federal education budget significantly and also to shift money around to expand school choice (support for privatization): “President Donald Trump’s first budget seeks to slash the Education Department’s roughly $68 billion budget by $9 billion, or 13 percent in the coming fiscal year, whacking popular programs that help districts offer after-school programs, and hire and train teachers.  At the same time, it seeks a historic $1.4 billion federal investment in school choice, including new money for private school vouchers and charter schools, as well as directing $1 billion to follow students to the school of their choice.”

How does Trump seek to expand school choice?  Klein explains that the federal Charter Schools Program, which now has a $333 million budget would be expanded with an additional $168 million. You may remember that this program has been condemned for poor oversight on several occasions by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General.  In the budget proposal, Trump also proposes to add $250 million for what Klein describes as a “private school choice initiative that could provide vouchers for use at private schools, including religious schools.”

Trump also brings back the idea of “Title I Portability” in this budget proposal. According to Klein, “As part of the school choice push, the budget would include a $1 billion increase for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, currently funded at nearly $15 billion.”  Sounds wonderful so far, as Title I has long been under-funded, but Klein continues: “But that money would come with a twist: States and districts would be encouraged to use the funds for a system of ‘student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and Local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.'”  This is a public, not a private school voucher program.

There are, however, several problems with the Title I Portability program described here.

One is that, as Klein describes it, students would carry not only federal and state dollars if they transfer to another public school district through some sort of open enrollment program, but they would also carry local dollars from one school district to another.  Klein explains that the proposal for Title I Portability, “could be aided by a new pilot program created under ESSA that allows up to 50 districts to adopt a ‘weighted student funding formula’, combining federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.  English language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.”

The second problem is that the idea of Title I Portability undermines the purpose of Title I, as it was designed in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to provide supplementary funding for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. This is a big problem in our society that is becoming more segregated economically. Under Trump’s proposal, if a poor student were to transfer to a wealthier public school district, that child would carry her funding, including the extra Title I money.  The poor district, still in need of help because it is serving a mass of students in poverty, including students who are part of the county’s foster care system and very likely a significant homeless population, would lose the Title I dollars intended to help schools serving many very poor students.

It is important to add here that Title I Portability is a proposal pushed hard by the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, during the 2015 debate on the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Senator Alexander was unable to amass sufficient Congressional support to pass Title I Portability in 2015.  Remember that Trump’s budget proposal cannot be accomplished by him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.  It must be approved and appropriated by Congress.  Emma Brown in her Washington Post budget report explains, “That policy, known as ‘portability,’ was rejected in the Republican-led Senate during deliberations over the main K-12 education law in 2015.  Many Democrats see portability as the first step toward federal vouchers for private schools and argue that it would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty and profound needs to those in more affluent neighborhoods.”

Trump’s  proposed budget maintains funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at $13 billion, the 2017 amount; is silent on funding for the Office of Civil Rights, where many had expected to see cuts; reduces funding for two programs that promote college access; cuts support for preparing teachers and school leaders; and eliminates altogether the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides before- and after-school and summer programs. On the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the budget document declares: “The program lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives such as improving student achievement,”  an assessment that assumes raising test scores is the sole goal of after-school programs and summer enrichment programs. Full service, wraparound Community Schools frequently incorporate 21st Century Learning Center funding as the way to pay for the after-school and summer enrichment programs that are essential for children’s development.

There is an important additional set of facts to remember as background for President Trump’s proposed budget.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminds us: “This is the seventh year of austerity in non-defense appropriations, brought about by the multi-year appropriations caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and further reduced by ‘sequestration’ budget cuts under BCA. In 2017 the non-defense cap is frozen at the prior year’s level, and in 2018 it falls by $3 billion as enacted sequestration relief expires and full sequestration cuts take effect for the first time.  The 2018 cap is 16 percent below the comparable 2010 level when adjusted for inflation, and 21 percent below the 2010 level when adjusted for both inflation and population growth… Policy makers can alleviate the squeeze in 2018 and beyond by enacting legislation to reduce the sequestration cuts in those years and substitute alternative deficit-reduction measures—as they have done on a bipartisan basis for each year from 2013 through 2017.”

What this very technical analysis means is that Trump’s budget proposal which slashes next year’s non-defense discretionary spending is not the first time spending has been reduced in recent years. If Congress eventually passes a budget with the kind of cuts Trump outlines in the document released yesterday, the new budget reductions will deepen the cutbacks we have already been experiencing as Congress has prioritized reducing the deficit over programs that support our citizens.