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Education Funding

Trump Seeks to Slash Education Budget, Combine 29 Programs Into Block Grant

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — February 10, 2020 8 min read
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President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would shrink U.S. Department of Education funding by nearly 8 percent in part by consolidating 29 major programs—including Title I aid for disadvantaged students and funding for charter school expansion—into a single, $19.4 billion block grant.

Trump’s spending proposal for fiscal 2021, released Monday, would cut the Education Department’s budget by $5.6 billion, reducing it to $66.6 billion, a 7.8 percent decrease. Its new Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged block grant, meanwhile, would represent a $4.7 billion cut from the combined current funding levels for the 29 programs that would be merged.

If the proposal were to be adopted, the federal government would no longer guarantee support specifically for the programs and policy areas being folded into the block grant. Most programs authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act would be consolidated into this new block grant, according to the department.

Separately, the budget proposal would boost special education grants to states to nearly $13 billion, an increase of $100 million, and would provide a significant increase for current state grants for career and technical education.

Although the new consolidated funding stream is described as a block grant, the administration’s budget documents also state that it would distribute the money using the current Title I formulas under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which direct funding districts. Education Department funding for Title I is currently $16.3 billion.

“Different states will spend their share of the block grant differently, and that’s okay,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said during a presentation of the spending proposal Monday. “In fact, that’s what we hope they will do.”

Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education,, said that the block grant proposal actually continued a recent decline in the number of specific programs funded by the main federal K-12 law and was not truly a “dynamic and totally new approach.”

“We can walk and chew gum on this one. We can provide much greater local control and still have accountability,” Brogan said during a presentation of the budget Tuesday.

Other programs whose funding would be merged into this new block grant include Title II grants for educator preparations (which currently gets $2.1 billion in federal funding); 21st Century Learning Centers, which back after-school programs ($1.3 billion); and Title IV block grants for academic enrichment and student well-being ($1.2 billion). Funding for programs that focus on special student populations such as migrant and homeless students, Native Hawaiian and Alaskan students, and rural education and community schools funding, also would be folded into the block grant.

While the administration painted this proposed block grant as a large, flexible program, critics of the budget said it was a way to conceal cuts to important priorities.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said in a statement that, “Once again, unsurprisingly, the president has released a budget proposal that is bad for students, bad for schools, and bad for public education.”

Change on Charters

The new block grant would absorb $440 million for the federal Charter School Program grants. This move would eliminate funding specifically allocated to help charter schools expand. That marks a significant departure from past Trump budget proposals, which have sought to increase funding for the program. Congress has approved increases for the charter grant during the Trump administration. In a statement, Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called the Trump budget “chilling.”

In a separate interview, Rees said including the charter funding in block grants would “risk diluting the purpose of the program.” The grants are particularly useful for small, community lead charter founders who lack start-up capital from larger charter networks, she said.

And, at a time when some states have debated new restrictions on charters, the change could leave the funding susceptible to the political whims of leaders who don’t favor the schools.

“When you block grants, you leave it up to states to decide how to spend the money. And in those instances where the state education chief and the governor are charter school friendly, hopefully they will keep a line item for charter schools. If they’re not in favor, they’re probably going to invest the money in something else,” Rees told us. “This administration wants to be known, especially secretary DeVos, wants to be known as the secretary who has promoted school choice. ... So in light of that, it is ironic that they would lump this program into a large block grant with all these other set asides and programs that they normally don’t support.”

Elsewhere, Trump’s fiscal 2021 spending blueprint would provide $2 billion to career and technical education, which is approximately a $700 million increase. Trump signed a reauthorization of the federal law for CTE in 2018, which was a priority for his administration on the K-12 front, and he highlighted CTE in his State of the Union address last week when he asked Congress to back his plan “to offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America.”

The administration says its latest budget, through the pitch for $700 million more for CTE, “provides resources to assist students too often forgotten—those who would like to pursue good-paying trades without getting a four-year degree.”

And the budget also includes a Trump proposal introduced last year for Education Freedom Scholarships, which rely on $5 billion in annual federal tax credits designed to support more education options, including vouchers and others.

In addition, the proposed budget would eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which teachers can use to eliminate federal student loan debt under certain circumstances. Funding for Regional Education Laboratories, which work in ten regions to improve academic outcomes, and State Longitudinal Data Systems, which support states’ work to manage, analyze, and use education information, are also eliminated in Trump’s budget pitch.

Past Proposals and Rejections

Trump’s budget proposal marks the fourth straight time the president has sought to cut the Education Department’s budget. Congress has essentially ignored his previous education spending blueprints and approved small increases for the department in each of the past three federal appropriations bills. There’s no particular reason to think Capitol Hill would treat this newest proposal much differently.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, called the newest Trump budget pitch a “disastrous repeat” of previous pitches.

“Just as we did last year, House Democrats will write responsible appropriations bills that invest in American families and communities,” Lowey said.

Sen, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chair of the Senate education committee, said in a statement that he would “carefully consider” the president’s recommendations, but that “it is Congress’ job to set spending priorities and pass appropriations bills.” He did praise the Education Freedom Scholarships plan for providing “low-income families more of the same choices that wealthier families already have for schooling their children.”

Last year, Trump proposed a 10 percent cut to the Education Department that would have shaved 10 percent off the agency’s roughly $71 billion budget. As in past years, the administration proposed eliminating $2.1 billion in Title II aid for educator training, $1.2 billion for after-school programs, and $1.1 billion in Title IV block grants for academic enrichment and student well-being.

However, the spending bill Trump signed at the end of 2019 actually increased the department’s budget by $1.3 billion up to $72.8 billion. None of the 29 programs he sought to eliminate funding for were actually axed. And Title II and Title IV grants actually got increases, as did aid for disadvantaged students under Title I and special education funding for states.

While Capitol Hill might give the cold shoulder to Trump’s budget pitch, there’s a very good chance it could become a running feature in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democratic candidates, for example, could tie Trump’s proposed education cuts to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (who is remarkably unpopular with Democrats) and use them to argue how Trump does not support struggling schools and students.

Other Agencies

Elsewhere, funding for Head Start under the Department of Health and Human Services would decline by $58 million $10.6 billion.

Meanwhile, the proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture would impose new restrictions on the Community Eligibility Program, which allows schools or districts with high enrollments of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals to serve free meals to all students, without individually enrolling them in the National School Lunch Program. The budget proposes only allowing participation for individual schools where at least 40 percent of students automatically or categorically qualify for the subsidized meal programs.

That would close a loophole under which some districts qualified all of their schools or groups of schools by combining their enrollment and meal data as an aggregate.

Photo: President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 arrives at the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)