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Cutting K-12, Boosting Choice: Reagan Failed, Will Trump Succeed?

By Alyson Klein — May 04, 2017 2 min read

Lawmakers grilled the U.S. Secretary of Education over the administration’s plan to cut major K-12 programs, while creating a federal tuition tax credit to help students attend the school of their choice.

No, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hasn’t been up to Capitol Hill to testify on the Trump administration’s budget yet. That was a description of President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, Terrel H. Bell, who had to defend similar cuts—and champion a similar school choice push—three and a half decades ago. (Happy #ThrowbackThursday, wonks.)

Reagan was seeking to slash about a third of the department’s budget, including a 36 percent cut to Pell Grants, a 17 percent cut to special education spending, and a 41 percent cut to funding for bilingual education. He was also seeking a tax credit to help families send their kids to private school. The Trump administration could pitch similar school choice friendly changes to the tax code. More in this vintage Education Week story.

Back in 1982, just like today, the Senate was controlled by Republicans. But that didn’t mean that the education committee chairman, Sen. Harrison Schmitt, R-N.M., was ready to cosign the administration’s plan. Schmitt had been a fan of tax credits for private schools, but told Bell he was no longer sure they were constitutional.

And lawmakers worried about the impact of the federal tax credit on the government’s overall bottom line. They didn’t seem persuaded by Bell’s contention that it would be “negligible.”

Trump, meanwhile, is seeking a $9 billion cut to the department’s roughly $70 billion budget, which amounts to about a 13 percent reduction. We’re still waiting for more details on where the cuts would come from, but we know the administration wants to scrap federal funding for after school programs as well as teacher quality. Those cuts would take effect in fiscal year 2018, which starts on Oct. 1 of this year. It’s unclear if Congress will go for the plan.

Reagan, for one, didn’t get what he wanted. In fact, lawmakers increased education spending.

And in the long run, federal education spending has gone up dramatically. Reagan was seeking to cut the department’s budget from nearly $15 billion, or about $39 billion in today’s dollars, to nearly $10 billion, in fiscal year 1983. But just a few years later, even the Reagan administration was asking for more money for K-12.

Photo: President Ronald Reagan works at his desk in the oval office of the White House as he prepares a speech on tax revision on May 24, 1985. Photo by Scott Stewart/AP


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