Education Spending: What Democratic Candidates Want vs. Reality, in Charts

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 27, 2019 2 min read
Democratic presidential candidates from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer participate during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Los Angeles.
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Democratic candidates for president in 2020 are making big promises about what they’ll spend on K-12 education. In fact, four candidates have made the same pledge to triple Title I, the single-largest program for public schools at the U.S. Department of Education, which has a $72.8 billion budget. Another candidate has pledged to quadruple Title I.

But what’s less prominent is how much those areas already get in federal funding; quadrupling Title I would bring spending on that program alone to $65.2 billion. So what are those gaps between grand plans and reality?

We highlighted six Education Department programs and compared how much money they get now to how much some of the 15 Democratic presidential candidates want to give them. We focused on four top-tier candidates based on polling—former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.—and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who’s promised to dramatically increase funding for a program and who hasn’t gotten as much attention.

We singled out their promises on relatively big programs (Title I and special education) and for a relatively small program (community schools). Figures have been rounded and are in the millions of dollars.

A few thoughts:

• We don’t mean for these charts to be comprehensive and cover all the candidates’ plans. We do hope they provide a good sample of the gap between what Democrats are looking for and the numbers right now.

• Candidates don’t always make it clear whether they intend to dramatically increase funding for a particular program all in one go, or over several years. (There are obvious incentives for not making it entirely clear.) However, even if their plans are phased in, they still differ dramatically from current numbers.

See Also: Candidates & Education: A Guide for 2020

• Several candidates have said they want to fully fund special education under Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. However, Warren is one candidate at least who has put a dollar figure on what that would mean in her administration.

• A candidate who wants more money for a certain strategy might want to create a new program within the federal budget. However, the comparison may still be helpful.

• There are often several line items that together make up big-ticket federal programs. For simplicity’s sake, we stuck with the business end of those programs when making comparisons. For example, we focused on state grants within federal special education funding.

• Big promises go in the other direction too: Sanders and Warren have pledged to halt federal aid to charter school expansion. The federal Charter School Program, which exists in large part to promote the growth of charters, is getting $440 million in fiscal 2020, the same level as in fiscal 2019 despite fierce, internecine fights over charters over the past several years. That illustrates the potential difficulty in significantly cutting or eliminating those grants.

An alternative version of this article was published in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Democratic Candidates’ K-12 Spending Priorities: Big Numbers, Heavy Lift


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