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Does Trump’s Education Budget Even Matter?

Big cuts to popular programs, boosting school choice proposed.

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President Trump’s proposed federal budget, unveiled Monday, calls for major cuts to existing education programs and a huge increase for school choice initiatives. The first question stemming from his blueprint is this: How seriously will Congress take his administration’s plan, even with Republicans controlling both chambers?

If history is any indicator the answer could well be “not very,” as presidential budgets and what Congress ultimately approves can be farther apart than Norway and Tonga in the Winter Olympics medal count. Lawmakers already have their own budget deal (albeit one that still needs to secure a final vote) setting general parameters for spending, including on both K-12 and higher education. While the fine print needs to be hammered out by Congress amid fierce lobbying by special interest groups, so far it doesn’t reflect much of what Trump is proposing.

That being said, what a president lays out as his priorities can inform debate on education spending. And since Trump doesn’t spend much time talking about education, this is also one way to gauge what’s on his administration’s agenda. In that vein, here are three takeaways to consider:

The first cut is the deepest. Trump’s budget would significantly reduce the federal footprint in public schools, said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst who worked for the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. Discretionary spending by the Education Department would be cut by 5.3 percent, about $3.6 billion off a $63 billion pot. Two programs would see the steepest cuts: Title II — used in part to recruit and retain teachers and support principals — and the 21st Century Learning Centers block grants, which pay for enrichment programs during non-school hours, particularly in high-poverty communities.

Many of the programs on the chopping block are longstanding and have fans on both sides of the congressional aisle, including grants to support safe and healthy schools and the Special Olympics. “The lucky programs are flat-funded. The unlucky ones — like nearly every discretionary grant program — aren’t just facing cuts, they’re eliminated,” Hyslop said.

“Presidential budgets and what Congress ultimately approves can be farther apart than Norway and Tonga in the Winter Olympics medal count.”

Typically less than 10 percent of K-12 spending comes from federal coffers, as state and local revenues make up the lion’s share. But those federal dollars are still badly needed, and Trump’s budget preserves current funding levels in two of the biggest areas: Title I, earmarked to help children from low-income families, and funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A smaller pot of money for career and technical education would also remain intact. The budget “expands education freedom for America’s families while protecting our nation’s most vulnerable students … by consolidating and eliminating duplicative and ineffective federal programs better handled by the state or local level,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Choices, choices. Indeed, “education freedom” would get a big bump under Trump’s plan — $1 billion overall. While details are still coming out, the so-called “Opportunity Grants” could be used for a range of options, including voucher programs that allow public dollars to follow students to private and parochial schools, reports Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa. Trump had asked $1 billion for school choice in the prior year’s budget, using a different configuration for allocating the funds, and was shut out by Congress. This year’s pitch is a clear mirror of both Trump’s and DeVos’ priorities, said Andrew Smarick, a senior scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s not like they took a good shot at school choice last time, got shut out, and backtracked,” Smarick said. “They remain committed.”

Interestingly, Trump’s latest push didn’t win unqualified support from key school choice advocates. While welcoming efforts to improve quality and quantity in the school choice sector, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools expressed concern “that other elements of the budget or other actions by the Administration may destabilize the families and communities in which all students live and undercut the benefits that they would receive from (expanded school choice), Title I and IDEA.”

A stumbling block for many would-be charter schools is paying for facilities — Trump’s proposal could help with those costs. But at the same time, the president’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, also released Monday, doesn’t earmark dollars for repairing schools, or for building them. In an unusual twist, the infrastructure plan would reroute most of the money for vocational training from postsecondary programs to high schools. (Check out Lauren Camera’s reporting for US News & World Report for more.) Where federal support for vocational training should be most effectively concentrated, and at what level of the public education system, is worth reevaluating, said AEI’s Smarick. The answer may not be two or four-year colleges, he added.

There were few other surprises on the higher ed front, as Trump’s budget largely matches the reported priorities of congressional Republicans, explains Inside Higher Ed. Among the biggies: ending student loan forgiveness for individuals who opt for careers in public service; consolidating several income-based repayment plans; and expanding the ways students use federal Pell Grant funds to pay for postsecondary education.

Let’s talk about sex (ed.). The charter school alliance is correct: there are plenty of federally supported programs and services that influence students’ lives beyond the Education Department’s line items. One example: Trump wants $75 million for the Health and Human Services Department to fund abstinence-only “and personal responsibility” sex education programs. That follows the appointment of Valerie Huber, a longtime abstinence education advocate,to a post in HHS. In an interview with PBS, Huber said “as public health experts and policymakers, we must normalize sexual delay more than we normalize teen sex, even with contraception.”

But some research has shown that many abstinence-only programs aren’t just ineffective, they can actually be harmful. The Fresno Bee found that teen pregnancy rates in less-affluent neighborhoods of California’s central valley were among the highest in the state, as were the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and that correlated with a lack of sex education classes and related services in local high schools.

While the Obama administration funded some abstinence-only programs it was at a reduced level, and more comprehensive approaches also got federal dollars, according to Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on sexuality education.

“The evidence is clear: Honest sexual health information, paired with accessible reproductive and sexual health care that includes contraception, HIV and STD prevention, testing and treatment, is a far better investment in our nation than proven-to-fail programs,” said Debra Hauser, the president of the Advocates for Youth. “Unfortunately, our national leaders have yet again refused to put the health of our youth above their own outdated ideologies.”