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Budget & Finance

Congress Wants a Record High for Education Spending. But That’s Only on Paper

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 22, 2018 2 min read
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President Donald Trump wanted a big cut for the Department of Education in his first budget. Instead, Congress wants to do pretty much the opposite. But let’s take a deeper look at the numbers.

The omnibus federal spending bill released Wednesday would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget by $2.6 billion over current enacted levels, bringing the budget up to $70.9 billion for fiscal 2018. It’s the first time in its history that the department’s discretionary budget has topped $70 billion, if you leave out the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the federal stimulus). Contrast that with Trump’s request to cut the department’s budget by over 13 percent for fiscal 2018, which would have been the single-biggest cut by percentage in the department’s history.

But would that number be record-high for the Education Department? In short, the answer is no.

That’s because of our old friend inflation. The next-highest level of discretionary funding the Education Department has received was in fiscal 2011, when it got $68.3 billion. If you plug that into the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you would need $77.2 billion in current dollars to match what the department was getting for fiscal 2011. So you can make the argument that in adjusted dollars, federal education spending for the department hasn’t reached the level it was when the country was still recovering from the impact of the Great Recession, which ended in 2009.

Recent data highlighted by our colleague Daarel Burnette II also indicates that some states still haven’t brought their education budgets back to pre-recession levels. It’s far from being bleak in all states—last year, for example, Georgia, Idaho, and Tennessee increased their education spending.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that education funding advocates are unhappy about the spending bill. We pointed out yesterday, for example, how Democrats who focus on education like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon were very pleased with the omnibus.

And Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, said the spending bill showed that Congress “values investments in education.”

“We’re not going to stop pushing for more,” Abernathy said. “We’re pleased there was not an area that was ignored.”

By contrast, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, disdained the GOP’s support for education increases:

Need a chart with some cool colors to figure out which programs would get what under the spending bill? Check it out below: