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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

The Problem with Those Who Cried “Wolf!” on Trump’s Education Budget

By Rick Hess — September 14, 2017 3 min read
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Back in May, the Trump administration released its proposed federal budget. It called for cutting the current education budget of $68.2 billion by 13%, to $59 billion. Trump’s big proposed cuts were a $2.3 billion cut to the Title II-A Supporting Effective Instruction States Grants and a $1.2 billion cut to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (which fund before-school, after-school, and summer programs). The budget also called for a $1 billion increase in Title I in order to support school choice, a $250 million increase for Education Innovation and Research to build the evidence base around private school choice, and a $167 million increase for charter schools. Seasoned observers noted that, whatever its merits or defects, Trump’s budget was dead on arrival in Congress.

Other observers, however—primarily education advocates and a surprisingly large percentage of the education media—wallowed in hyperbole. News stories bore headlines like “The Trump Budget Puts America’s Students Last,” “Trump’s Budget Threatens to Reverse Years of Efforts to Boost Young Scientists,” and “Trump’s Proposed After-School Cuts Could Lead to More Hungry Kids, Lower Test Scores.” The commentary managed to be even more dire. Education news and opinion site The 74 ran a series of exclamatory columns asserting, “Trump’s Ed Budget Masks Cuts as Flatlines and Makes Cuts That Devastate Kids,” and “How Trump’s Budget Would Gut Innovations in Teacher Training—Just as Things Are Getting Better.” Heck, it wasn’t only the cuts that garnered outraged reporting—even Trump’s proposed increases generated hysteria, with one Chalkbeat news headline crying, “‘I Think That’s Blood Money': Arne Duncan Pushed Charters to Reject Funds from Trump Admin if Budget Cuts Approved.”

In all of this coverage and commentary, the fact that some reasonable observers deemed the proposed cuts reasonable and justifiable was almost laughably absent. And it was equally hard to find anyone explaining that the suggested cuts were, like most presidential budgets, more a vision statement than a meaningful starting point. In other words, missing was perspective and a sense of proportion.

Well, here we are just four months later. And, guess what? Trump’s budget is as dead as everyone knew it would be. (I suppose advocates can try to claim credit for “stopping” the Trump budget, though they may as well claim credit for making the sun rise while they’re at it.) In fact, Trump and the Democrats just negotiated a deal which led to Congress enacting yet another continuing resolution, which means that the government will continue to operate at current funding levels into December.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate have been working away on their respective budgets. And, wouldn’t you know it, neither looks anything like the Trump budget. The conservative House’s opening bid, produced back in July, calls for trimming the education budget by $2.4 billion—less than four percent—while ignoring Trump’s school-choice proposals beyond a modest bump (of $28 million) for charter schools.

And, last week, the Senate approved its version of the budget. By 29-2, the education committee ignored the Trump budget and voted instead to increase education spending by $29 million. Trump’s proposed cuts to teacher training and after-school funding were completely disregarded. Like the House, the Senate also rejected Trump’s calls for elevated school-choice funding (while approving a $25 million bump for charter schools).

As I wrote back in May:

I'm surprised by the breathlessness with which the education media have responded to all this. For their part, the general media mostly gave the budget limited coverage, noting that even Hill Republicans were saying that it will bear little relation to what Congress ultimately does. But education outlets ran lots of anguished stories . . . in which advocates were given free rein to predict the dire consequences of a given cut. In such accounts, context or measured responses were in short supply.

In all this, unfortunately, the education media has been so busy transcribing the charged talking points of education advocates (the desire for more money being one of those issues where “reformers” and teacher unions mostly stand shoulder-to-shoulder) that they’ve given free play to those inclined to cry “wolf!” Given the challenges of this era, that’s especially unfortunate. The hyperbole that greeted the nothingburger of Trump’s budget swamped the chance to discuss whether some federal education spending should be cut. More importantly, the anguished frenzy over nothing will make it just a bit harder for the adults in the room to be taken at face value the next time they’re obliged to respond to one of the truly reckless, feckless spasms of our child president.

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