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Trump Budget Reported to Use Title I, Research Aid to Push Choice

By Andrew Ujifusa and Alyson Klein

UPDATED

President Donald Trump's full education budget proposal for fiscal 2018 would make notable cuts to the U.S. Department of Education, and leverage existing programs for disadvantaged students and K-12 innovation to promote school choice, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. 

Trump's full education funding blueprint would cut $9.2 billion, or 13.6 percent, from the Education Department's current $68 billion budget, said the report, based on still-unreleased budget documents. Also, the spending plan calls for the creation of a new, $1 billion federal grant program under Title I to allow students to take federal, state, and local dollars to their public school of choice. That money would be added to the $15.9 billion Title I receives this budget year, fiscal 2017— that current funding is not "portable" to public schools of choice and goes out by formula.

Both the cuts and the new grant for Title I, along with other aspects of the full budget proposal expected to be released as early as next week, are consistent with Trump's preliminary budget released in mid-March.

Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, noted that Congress rejected the idea of allowing Title I funds to follow students to the school of their choice when lawmakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. In general, she said she was deeply concerned about the message the budget proposal sends.

"This is the first direct threat on ESSA opportunity and ESSA success," she said. "President Trump is completely undermining federal funding to support key elements of the law that Congress passed less than two years ago."

There's a lot to like in the general contours of the budget plan, and in particular its cuts to the Education Department, said Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, which supports school choice including vouchers. But the idea of a new federal program under Title I, and additional money for it, is problematic for school choice, which should really remain under the control of states and local communities, she said.

"There are merits certainly to Title I portability. But that's different than setting up a new program with new funding, which is what this appears to be," Burke said. "If it's through a new federal program, that's problematic."

Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute, expressed similar concerns about the new fund for Title I portability in the budget, saying it's not a particularly good idea to have a new program "glom onto" Title I, when all of Title I should be portable if it exists at all. He also said he wants to see more detail about that and other proposals.

"There's no $20 billion for school choice in this budget," McCluskey said, referring to Trump's campaign pledge. McCluskey added that the big school choice plan (if one is coming at all) will likely be through potential tax reform and tax credits for private school choice. 

A New Mission for an Innovation Program

The spending plan would also use the Education Innovation and Research fund, which is receiving $100 million in the current budget, to both study and expand vouchers. Funding for EIR would go up to $250 million. Although a new voucher program was included in Trump's preliminary budget, the vehicle for promoting vouchers was not. 

Michele McLaughlin, the executive director of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents research and advocacy organizations, said that she was troubled by the possibility of the Trump administration turning the EIR program solely into a program aimed at expanding and researching school choice. Vouchers are pricey, she noted, and using the EIR for them could mean that other areas or programs that educators are interested in would get shut out entirely.

"I think that having been involved with the process and working closely with members of Congress that really care about this program they would say this is not congressional intent," McLaughlin said in an Education Week interview. (McLaughlin stressed that she wasn't able to confirm the details in the Post story.)

In an interview, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the ranking Democat on the House subcommittee for K-12, agreed: "We never set it up in a way so that those funds could be diverted to support private schools."

Polis also slammed the budget proposal in general, saying that the proposal to make some Title I money portable "undermines the intent of Title I" by shifting money away from schools with high-levels of poverty to wealthier schools. And he said it would damage prospects for low-income students and their families.

"I hope that it is dead on arrival in the House," Polis said. "Traditionally, presidents haven't had their way [with the budget]. I hope we keep with that tradition."

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, took a similar stance, saying in a statement that, "This budget would weaken communities by eliminating funding for after-school programs, grant aid for struggling college students and teacher and principal training programs, and so much more—even Special Olympics education programs."

Charter school funding would also go up by 50 percent from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018, to $500 million, the Post reported. That increase was also in the administration's preliminary budget.

No Funding for a New Block Grant

Trump's K-12 budget for fiscal 2018 would also entirely eliminate funding for a block grant intended to help programs providing well-rounded education to students and cover things like health and education technology. Right now, in fiscal 2017, that block grant, called Student Support and Academic Enrichments (SSAE) grant program, gets $400 million.

Ally Bernstein, a spokeswoman for a coalition of organizations pushing for funding for the block grant, was dismayed by the prospect of its elimination, and said she hopes Congress rejects how the budget handles it.

"If these leaked details of the administration's [budget proposal] are accurate, they demonstrate clearly that school choice is the administration's sole vision for K-12 education, coming at the expense of critical programs that the SSAE grants are meant to support—health and safety programs, well-rounded academic programs, and the effective use of education technology," she said in an email.

And the AASA's Ellerson Ng said Congress has also touted the law's flexible block grant as an investment in local control.

Grants for career and technical education, currently totaling about $1.1 billion, would lose $168 million in fiscal 2018, according to the Post.

The proposal would also reportedly eliminate Title II grants and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs, which Trump also proposed in his mid-March skeleton budget. Special education funding would remain the same, at about $12 billion.

Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have promoted school choice consistently, but the fiscal 2018 budget plan represents the first concrete vision the Trump administration has laid out to expand choice.

Neither the White House nor the Education Department had any immediate comment on the details in the Post's report.


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