Federal Budget Knife Could Slash Into K-12 Programs
President Donald Trump's push to drastically reduce domestic spending as a way to boost defense spending could have a significant impact on programs at the U.S. Department of Education, where the biggest streams of funding go toward low-income students and those with special needs. But its precise effect on overall federal K-12 aid remains unclear, as do the prospects for Trump's budget plan in Congress.
Early last week, Trump announced a proposal to increase defense-related spending by $54 billion in fiscal 2018, which begins in October, and to cut nondefense discretionary spending by a corresponding figure. That amounts to a 10 percent across-the-board cut for domestic agencies like the Education Department. The Trump administration is expected to release more details about its spending priorities later this month, but it's not certain how the cuts in discretionary spending would affect each agency.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House subcommittee that appropriates money for the Education Department, last week referenced the possibility of $18 billion to $20 billion in cuts to the portion of the budget that funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "There's no part of this budget that can escape unscathed" if the cuts are on that scale, Cole said in a subcommittee hearing.
But Congress may be unwilling to go along with Trump's budget plan and make that deep a cut to domestic spending to fund defense-related activities. Among other things, passing Trump's budget would require lawmakers to alter or toss out the Budget Control Act of 2011, which sets caps on federal discretionary spending.
The current discretionary-spending budget for the Department of Education is $68.1 billion, and the single biggest budget item included in that amount are Pell Grants for low-income students attending college, totaling $22.5 billion. The biggest program by dollar amount at the department related to K-12 public schools is Title I, designated for disadvantaged students, at $14.9 billion. A 10 percent cut would bring the department's discretionary spending down to roughly $61.3 billion. That would mark its lowest level since fiscal 2008, when discretionary spending at the department was set at $59.2 billion.
A spokesman for the Education Department, Matt Frendewey, said last week that his department was still waiting on more details about how Trump's plan would affect K-12. But advocates for relatively limited federal spending on education are encouraged by the early signal from the Trump administration.
"A 10 percent reduction across the board makes a lot of sense," said Lindsey Burke, the director of education policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank whose budget blueprint reportedly served as a model for Trump's early approach to federal spending. "When we start to ratchet down federal intervention, ... we really do make space for states and localities to think about what works for them and where they really want to prioritize resources."
Burke singled out the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which finance activities like expanded learning time and are funded at nearly $1.2 billion in the current budget, as an example of a program she would like to see reduced. But it's potential cuts to Title I that have many education advocates particularly worried.
"We are concerned that this administration will not prioritize the protection of Title I students," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
Although the federal government is currently operating on a continuing resolution in fiscal 2017, which expires in late April and essentially keeps funding equivalent to fiscal 2016 levels, House and Senate education funding bills proposed last year could still be a significant factor in whatever fiscal 2018 budget Trump ends up receiving.
For example, the House spending bill, passed out of the appropriations committee last summer, would boost funding for special education state grants by $500 million, up to $12.4 billion. Indeed, at the subcommittee hearing last week, Cole said, "It's actually one of the most efficient programs that we have. Every school district in America needs it."
However, that same House budget plan would cut federal spending on state assessments by $78 million, down to $300 million; the office for civil rights by $7 million, down to $100 million; and instructional grants by $400 million, down to just under $2 billion, among other reductions.
It's also unclear to what extent the Trump administration's budget would push cuts to programs like Head Start, Preschool Development Grants, and the National School Lunch Program. The first two are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services and the latter is run by the Department of Agriculture.
Federal magnet school and charter school grants, currently funded at $97 million and $333 million, respectively, present an interesting wrinkle. The Trump administration has stressed school choice as its key K-12 policy argument, but those line items could be relatively attractive ones for reductions. The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December 2015, also eliminated many K-12 programs.
On the campaign trail last year, Trump repeatedly discussed either eliminating the Education Department or gutting it. Since his administration began, neither the president nor Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have said they want to shut the department down.
But that doesn't mean big-ticket items are safe in the era of Trump budgets, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a research and advocacy group, and a former Democratic Senate education staffer.
"If you do have a significant chunk of change [to cut]," she said, "there aren't that many places to go."
Vol. 36, Issue 24, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: March 8, 2017, as Federal Budgeting May Result in Cuts for K-12 Programs