Senators are pouring cold water on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ vision of a big new investment in school choice, as well as the Trump administration’s plans to dramatically slash spending at the U.S. Department of Education.
Legislation on both fronts received bipartisan support from the full Senate appropriations committee last week. In addition to barring the administration from using federal funding for vouchers or public school choice, it would continue paying for two high-profile programs the Trump administration is seeking to scrap: Title II, which provides $2.05 billion in federal funding to hire and train educators, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which provides $1.2 billion for after-school and summer programs.
But the teacher-training program isn’t out of the woods just yet. The House of Representatives spending bill, which will have to be hashed out in conference with the Senate measure, still aims to eliminate that program. The House’s version of the bill would, however, provide $1 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, meaning it is almost certain to stick around in the 2018-19 school year.
Overall, the Senate’s spending bill includes a lot more money for the department’s bottom line than the administration wanted. It would provide $68.3 billion overall, a slight increase of $29 million over the current level for fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30 and generally affects the 2017-18 school year. That’s in contrast to the House’s proposal, which would provide $66 billion for the department, down $2.4 billion from the current budget.
The administration had been hoping for a $1 billion boost for the nearly $15 billion Title I program, the largest federal K-12 program, which is aimed at covering the cost of educating disadvantaged students. It had planned to use that increase for a new program that would allow districts to have federal funding follow students to the school of their choice.
And the Trump team had hoped to use a new $250 million investment in the Education Innovation and Research program—which is supposed to help scale up promising practices in states and school districts—to nurture private school choice.
The Senate bill essentially rejects both of those pitches. It instead would provide a $25 million boost for Title I and $95 million for the research program, a slight cut from the current level of $100 million.
But importantly, the legislation wouldn’t give DeVos and her team the authority to use money from either of those pots for school choice. In fact, the committee said in language accompanying the bill that the secretary needs to get the OK from Congress to create a school choice initiative with the funds.
That isn’t the first setback for DeVos’ school choice ambitions. The full House approved a funding bill last week that doesn’t provide any new money for the administration’s school choice proposals.
And it is looking less and less likely that the administration will be able to get a federal tax-credit scholarship included in a forthcoming measure to overhaul the tax code. Such a program, a version of which is in place in at least 16 states, would give a tax break to individuals or corporations that donate to K-12 scholarship-granting organizations. DeVos and her team are said to be working on the idea behind the scenes, but it’s already drawn pushback from conservative organizations, including the influential Heritage Foundation.
Still, the Trump team may end up with a small victory when it comes to charter schools, which for years have enjoyed bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The Senate bill includes a $25 million increase for charter school grants, which would bring them to $367 million. That’s not as high as the $167 million boost the administration asked for, or even as high as the $28 million the House is seeking.
The committee is proposing $450 million for another program that the administration sought to zero-out completely: the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, the new block-grant program created under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The program, which can be used for almost anything from computer science programs to band instruments and Advanced Placement test fees, is now receiving $400 million. It is slated to receive $500 million under a bill approved by the House appropriations committee earlier this year.
Separately, the bill would provide level funding for special education state grants, keeping them at about $12.2 billion. It would allocate $1.1 billion for Career and Technical Education grants, the same level as last year. The Trump administration had pitched a $165 million reduction.
The Head Start program, an early-childhood-education program for low-income children, would receive $9.3 billion in the Senate bill. That’s about the same as the current level. The House bill includes a $22 million boost for Head Start. The National Head Start Association, which represents centers, said in a statement that the Senate’s plan to flat-fund the program could lead to cuts down the road.
Published in Print: September 13, 2017, as Senate Bill Blocks Trump, DeVos on K-12 Cuts, School Choice