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Budget & Finance

Trump’s Imminent Education Budget and How Washington Sows Confusion Over School Spending

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 05, 2020 8 min read
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President Donald Trump will release his federal budget proposal, including for the U.S. Department of Education, on Feb. 10, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In all likelihood, Trump will propose cuts to the department’s overall budget and call for the elimination of some programs; he already highlighted the administration’s flagship school choice plan, unveiled last year on Capitol Hill, in his State of the Union address. And in all likelihood, Congress will once again ignore that proposal.

All that doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy: An administration’s budget proposal provides some insight into its priorities beyond just dollars and cents. But obscure parts of such plans can also whip up a sudden furor over tangential issues for education like Special Olympics aid (more on that in a bit), while obscuring bigger challenges. It’s also a part of how Washington creates uncertainty and controversy over the way federal education spending works.

Let’s use the opportunity provided by Trump’s soon-to-be-released spending plan to untangle some of the rhetoric and actions concerning the federal education budget. Some of these debates and complexities extend to all parts of the federal budget, not just education. Yet others are particularly relevant or intense, when it comes to Washington’s spending on schools.

People Think It’s Too Small—or Too Big

This is perhaps the most straightforward controversy. Education funding lobbyists will tell you that while they appreciate incremental increases in spending in recent years, they’re largely if not entirely negated by rising inflation. They’ll also tell you that long-standing caps on discretionary federal spending are wrongly holding back what should be big new investments in K-12 education to better meet the needs of students and educators.

On the other hand, skeptics of the federal role in education question the size of the Education Department’s budget given the national stagnation in student performance in some areas. Some conservatives continue to question whether the department should exist at all; when Trump discussed education during the 2016 campaign, his pledge to shrink if not downright eliminate the department resonated with some observers for a reason.

Part of what causes this frustration and disagreement is that, unlike health care, national defense, and immigration, the federal government does not have the dominant role when it comes to funding for education. Indeed, Washington does not have statutory power over universally recognized elements of education like curriculum. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., articulated this tension (albeit only one side of the argument) when he called education a major national issue, but not one where the federal role should be paramount.

Public support for increasing federal education funding can be found in relatively old and relatively new polls. But surveys also indicate there’s been a mix of support for and opposition to a greater federal role in education over the past several years. It’s debatable whether those two trends, to the extent they’re continuous or hold sway, sit comfortably with each other, and how well informed those opinions are.

“All members of Congress think education is a good thing,” Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for increased education spending. “They disagree about what the role and the responsibility of the federal government is. That’s where you get the debates over the Education Department’s funding.”

Relatively Small Things Get a Huge Amount of Attention

Let’s now turn to Trump’s pitch last year to eliminate Education Department funding for the Special Olympics.

After a Democratic lawmaker probed DeVos about it, and DeVos defended the idea to the panel, the story exploded. The idea of cutting the popular program’s federal aid inspired such a fierce backlash that Trump quckly undercut DeVos by announcing he’d “overridden” his team and would no longer seek to cut its funding.

It’s not a surprise that proposing to cut funding for a famous, beloved program generated attention the way it did. Still, it wasn’t the first time Trump had proposed cutting that funding. At the time, the Special Olympics got $18.5 million in funding from the Education Department, a tiny fraction of the agency’s budget, which topped $71 billion. Total revenue for the Special Olympics in 2018 was $148.3 million.

And even as such issues draw a ton of klieg lights and microphones, people often ignore “the overall number of kids who need special education services, or who are in economically disadvantaged areas with schools that have real fundamental needs,” Abernathy said.

In the end, Congress increased aid to the Special Olympics last year by $2.5 million. It’s debatable, though, whether the uproar illuminated anything substantive about federal spending on schools. We’ll be watching for a similar outcry during this presidential election year.

Headlines Versus Substance

As we alluded to earlier, the president’s spending proposal is a proposal, nothing more. Trump has no power to force Congress to approve it. Yet at least during the Trump administration, it has often generated a large amount of attention, much of which dries up by the time the president signs appropriations bills into law and actual spending levels for the department are set.

Remember when Trump released a list of the 29 department programs he wanted to eliminate funding for in his last budget blueprint? All of them survived the spending axe.

Again, perhaps it’s natural for a president’s budget to generate more attention than the congressional appropriations process, which often proceeds at a stately pace and is pretty opaque to much of the general public. That’s particularly true when a president proposes relatively dramatic spending increases or decreases.

But what gets signed into law ultimately matters more than what’s proposed by the president.

In 2018, the EdWeek Research Center asked a representative sample of 500 school administrators what impact they thought Trump’s budget policies would have on their districts. In total, 74 percent said that Trump would have either a “very negative” or “negative” impact on K-12 budgets (46 percent said “negative”) according to the survey results, which were published in EdWeek Market Brief. As things stand, Trump’s first term so far has (unsurprisingly) not led to dramatic boosts in federal education spending. Nor has it led to dramatic cuts and some of the more dire fears about what his administration would mean for bottom lines.

Crisis-Generated Spending

Shortly after the Parkland, Fla., school shootings in 2018, Congress responded by, among other things, nearly tripling the spending on Title IV grants at the Education Department. Those grants can be used to improve school climate and safety. Funding for the program went from $400 million to $1.1 billion, an increase of about $700 million that dwarfed other new grants aimed at preventing school violence that Congress also approved in the wake of Parkland.

The big boost for Title IV got bipartisan support, and there’s a coalition of education groups that support funding for it. So lots of people in the education community were pleased. Yet the incident highlighted that what Congress considers a crisis can drive education spending beyond the typical slow and clunky appropriations process.

Indeed, advocates for Title IV, even as they praised the spending increased, stressed that Title IV was versatile. “We’ve tried to say this is not just a school safety” fund, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists, told us at the time. Indeed, it can be used on a wide variety of things, from Advanced Placement courses to dance classes. (Title IV money can even be transferred to other federal programs, like Title I.) Whether schools spend it on safety measures is a matter for districts and states.

Want to Change That? You Need an Act of Congress

There are certain things federal appropriations bills on their own tend not to do.

Take Title I, the single largest K-12 expense in the federal budget. It’s intended to provide additional support for schools with large shares of students from low-income households. However, there’s evidence that Title I in many instances does not actually benefit those children as intended. The Every Student Succeeds Act has led to significant education policy changes, but one thing lawmakers didn’t do when they passed it in 2015 was change the Title I formula (really four formulas put together) that dictates where the money goes.

There was enough concern on Capitol Hill about the Title I formulas not long before ESSA passed that two Republican lawmakers released proposals to change them in 2015. The plans got mixed reviews and were left out of ESSA, the law where the formulas are enshrined.

The point is that Title I funding changes do not address the underlying questions and controversy about how the program works. In general, schools obviously welcome significant education funding increases (though not always the strings attached to them). But as Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, told us, there could be “all the money in the world for Title I ... I would still say: The formula is flawed.”

Indeed, when presidential candidates talk about redirecting money to address priorities like teacher pay, they’re really talking about making changes to federal education law, even if they don’t realize or publicly acknowledge that.

Speaking of the 2020 race ...

Candidates’ Promises Versus Reality

Candidates can pitch a huge funding spike for things like Title IV grants and make it sound like a dramatic change, even if the public’s understanding of what those grants can be used for is limited. Yet you should also be highly skeptical when you see candidates’ pledges to triple or quadruple bigger programs like Title I. Even when it passed the stimulus package in 2009, Congress did not approach those lofty multipliers for the entire Education Department.

Do those promises signal that K-12 spending growth could accelerate in a new Democratic administration? Of course. Yet even House Democrats, who want a lot more money for education spending, passed an education appropriations bill earlier this year that would have increased such spending by a little more than 6 percent (and the final increase fell short of that).

In fact, if you count student loans, higher education accounts for a much larger share of money that’s under the control of the Education Department than K-12 does.

Photo: President Donald Trump (Evan Vucci/AP)