The banner proposal in the Trump administration’s spending request for the U.S. Department of Education, released Monday, is a block grant consisting of 29 current programs called “Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged Block Grant.” This new grant, which would get $19.4 billion in the president’s budget pitch, would also get $4.7 billion less than the current combined funding for the programs that would be merged together.
So what are the programs that would be eliminated and have their funding transferred into this grant for fiscal 2021? Via the Office of Management and Budget, check out the list below, which includes their current funding levels in millions of dollars (click to enlarge):
As we pointed out Monday, the new block grant would not only consist of some of the largest programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act, like Title I spending for the disadvantaged ($16.3 billion currently) and Title II grants for educator development ($2.1 billion). It would also subsume several current programs that focus on specific populations of students, like migrant and homeless students as well as Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native children in schools.
Several of the programs Trump wants to consolidate into this block grant were on the list of programs the president wanted to eliminate altogether in his fiscal 2020 budget request last year. Essentially, Trump’s block grant would create a new competition among supporters of these various programs to have state and local officials direct resources to their preferred policy areas.
So does that strategy properly empower states and districts, or does it allow Trump to conceal a budget cut to several long-standing programs? Your mileage may vary.
One program that’s not on the list to be consolidated into the block grant? Special Olympics. Last year, the president and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos triggered a huge backlash by proposing to eliminate the program; Trump eventually backed down. The program would get $20 million, the same as what it currently gets, in Trump’s new budget request.
Remember that Trump’s budget request is just a proposal and not a mandate; Congress has the power to set spending levels and based on precedent is likely to ignore a lot of, if not all, of what the administration is proposing.
Nevertheless, let’s examine this proposed block grant for a moment. When Washington wants to convert a program into a block grant, it takes a grant program and its corresponding funding, converts the money into a lump sum, loosens or does away with federal requirements, and turns the money over to states so that they assume significantly greater control.
Conservatives often support block grants as a strategy to limit the federal government’s power and streamline programs. But liberals often say these grants tend to represent funding cuts and can unfairly restrict resources for those in need.
According to Trump’s budget, the funds under the block grant “would be allocated to districts through the Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies formulas, ensuring Federal education funds continue to support school districts serving disadvantaged students.” Those are the same existing formulas that are designed to direct the $16.3 billion in current Title I aid to school districts.
Under Trump’s proposal, states would be allowed to reserve up to 10 percent of this block grant money; specifically they’d have to reserve at least 5 percent of it to support school improvement, and up to 1 percent of it for administration purposes. And each state would have to reserve $5 million for population and poverty statistical updates for U.S. census purposes. Aside from those requirements, Trump’s budget specifically mentions that states could focus their set-aside money on “providing start-up and facilities funding for public charter schools.”
The charter school community, by the way, is unhappy with the proposal to merge the Charter School Program, which support the expansion of charters to the tune of $440 million this year, into this new block grant.
Otherwise, states would have to continue meeting “key accountability measures” under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the budget states, including setting performance goals, reporting information to the public, and identifying schools for improvement. Here’s more from the budget justifying this block grant proposal:
“By eliminating its grant competitions and national activities, the Department will be able to significantly reduce staffing and administrative costs over time. The consolidation of most ESEA programs into a single formula grant program would also eliminate Federal burdens that have inhibited innovation and allow State and local educators to drive meaningful improvements in educational outcomes for all students.”
Because at least nine out of every 10 dollars under this proposed block grant would flow to districts, Trump’s proposed block grant would actually provide a large amount of power to local communities, even though block grants are often associated with greater state control.
ESSA currently allows states to set aside up to 7 percent of their share of Title I money for school improvement, so the proposed grant’s maximum percent set-aside for that work could shift more resource power to states. ESSA also allows states to set aside up to 3 percent of Title I aid for direct student services for things like tutoring and dual enrollment; that set-aside is not specifically mentioned in the administration’s description of its new block grant pitch.
In a budget presentation Monday, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Jim Blew indicated that in the administration’s view, just because any single program would be merged into the block grant did not automatically mean that federal funding for work in that policy area would be cut. Rather, he said, states and districts would have the discretion to prioritize their needs and support them as they saw fit.
But supporters of federal education spending were not swayed, and focused on the the $4.7 billion overall reduction instead.
“These cuts would hurt students of all ages, cutting support targeted to needy students, teachers and school leaders, [and] programs dedicated to serving specific populations,” said Sheryl Cohen, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a group that backs increased federal spending on K-12, in a Monday statement issued after the Education Department’s budget presentation.