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Donald Trump’s Sequester Plan: What It Does (and Doesn’t) Mean for K-12

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 08, 2016 3 min read
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In a speech on Wednesday focusing on national security, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proposed ending the budget caps on defense imposed by sequestration and increasing spending on the military.

Importantly, however, he did not say he planned to get rid of the cuts for domestic spending, including education. And, getting rid of the cuts for the military, but not K-12, could have a far-reaching impact on federal education policy and funding.

But first: remember sequestration? We’re guessing folks might need a bit of a refresher.

Sequestration is a series of automatic cuts to discretionary spending adopted by Congress in 2011 as a way to force the passage of a long-term budget agreement. It was adopted through the Budget Control Act of 2011, and applied to both defense and non-defense spending (such as education). It began in 2013.

On the K-12 front, it had the biggest impact on schools that relied on $1.2 billion in federal Impact Aid. Many of those schools have large shares of Native American, or military-connected, students. Its impact on overall federal school funding has been blunted by two budget deals that helped Congress avoid the automatic cuts, although federal education spending still stands below pre-sequestration levels.

The first such deal was brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and covered the fiscal 2014 and 2015 budget years. The second was a two-year budget deal brokered by former House Speaker John Boehner just before he left Congress, that lifted the caps on spending imposed by the sequester. (Ryan, of course, is the new speaker.)

The two-year Boehner deal covers the fiscal 2016 and 2017 budget years, and imposes a cap on non-defense discretionary spending, including on education, of about $527 billion for each of those years. That’s higher than the sequester cap that would have kicked in for those two years by about $30 billion and $25 billion, respectively. However, the sequester spending caps are slated to go back into effect for fiscal 2018, unless Congress strikes some other short- or long-term budget deal. If the spending caps kick in for fiscal 2018, the cap would dip a bit below that $527 billion figure.

At this point, you might be thinking: A chart would really help me here. Below is one that lays out the situation pretty clearly, courtesy of the Committee for Education Funding—in the chart, “NDD” is Washington jargon for “non-defense discretionary” spending:

So here’s how all that relates to Trump and his sequester plan: As we mentioned above, in his speech, Trump made no mention of lifting that cap on discretionary non-defense spending. That alone worries funding advocates.

But they’re also concerned because, if Trump’s plan went into effect, increases in defense spending could create simultaneous, downward political pressure on non-defense spending, including on education. Remember, when it comes to these caps, nothing requires Congress to max out the cap—they could spend well below such caps. And any notable cuts to the U.S. Department of Education could come right around the time schools shift to the Every Student Succeeds Act, in the 2017-18 school year, which could truly alarm edu-funding advocates as well as states and districts. Right now, the department has a $68 billion budget.

Of course, if Trump is elected and makes a hard push to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, something he’s suggested he’d like to do, that fight could blot out these concerns about budget caps and sequestration.

Many Republicans who favor defense over domestic spending, on the other hand, would probably welcome the chance to cut federal education spending. They might argue that ESSA hands more power to states and districts, and therefore reduces the need to fund the Education Department at current levels.

Photo: Donald Trump delivers an economic policy speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)