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House Lawmakers Advance Funding Bill Without Trump-DeVos Choice Programs

Washington

UPDATED

House lawmakers who oversee funding for the U.S. Department of Education voted in a subcommittee Thursday to advance legislation funding schools for the coming budget year. Reflecting partisan divisions, GOP and Democratic members of Congress differed sharply over the impact of the bill, which GOP legislators introduced earlier this week and which would provide $66 billion to the department, a $2.4 billion cut for fiscal 2018.

In a brief hearing here in a House appropriations subcommittee, Republicans stressed that the proposed $66 billion legislation would preserve current funding levels for Title I, increase spending on special education by $200 million, and keep intact current aid for early education and career and technical education.

However, Democrats slammed the bill's elimination of $2 billion in Title II money for teacher training and class-size reductions, and said its increases to other education programs were welcomed but not sufficient.

The vote means that the bill advances to the full House appropriations committee, which could take up the bill next week. Notably, the House legislation does not include two signature school choice initiatives in President Donald Trump's proposed budget: a $1 billion public school choice program, and a $250 million state grant program to expand private school choice. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she's undaunted by the absence of those proposals from the bill. "The House process is one part of the process," DeVos said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. "The Senate will also be a process and we're committed to working with the Congress on these budget items and issues so it's an ongoing process."

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, was less sanguine about the prospects for those plans. He recalled that when he pushed for a voucher program when he was education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, he "almost got my head taken off" by lawmakers from both parties. 

"Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers. I think school choice advocates, and I'm one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community by community then in Washington. I think it's more difficult here," Alexander said.

The House bill's cut of 3.5 percent for education is significantly less than the $9.2 billion reduction the Trump administration wants for the department. However, the legislation does match the Trump spending blueprint's move to eliminate the $2 billion in Title II aid.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the subcommittee chairman, said the bill is "continuing to support early-childhood education, particularly for those at risk." And he noted the bill's increased support for Title IV, saying, "These funds can be used flexibly by school districts across the country." (More on that below.)

But the subcommittee's top Democrat, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, took aim at the $2 billion Title II cut. "That appears to me to be anti-teacher," DeLauro said. And she said that while the $200 million increase in special education grants (bringing total funding up to $12.2 billion) is appreciated, "special education funding continues to fall short of our commitment" to students with special needs.

Other highlights of the House legislation:

  • Traditional Title I aid to districts would remain flat at $15.9 billion. 
  • It would give a relatively small bump to charter school grants, which would go from $342 million to $370 million. 
  • Title IV's block grant, designed to fund a diverse set of education programs, would get a $100 million boost from current spending up to $500 million. Trump wants to eliminate the block grant entirely. 
  • Career and technical education spending would remain the same as current spending, which stands at about $1.1 billion. 
  • Preschool development grants, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would be flat-funded at $250 million.

Before Thursday's hearing, several education advocacy groups singled out the Title II cuts proposed in the House bill for criticism Council of Chief State School Officers Executive Director Chris Minnich, for example, said that, "Cutting these funds to zero wouldn't allow for an opportunity to improve how we spend those dollars and would turn our back on the commitments we have made to teachers and students."

In two recent congressional hearings where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified, lawmakers expressed a fair bit of skepicism about Trump's budget, including key Republicans like Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the Senate education spending subcommittee. 

The Senate subcommittee has yet to release its own funding bill for the Education Department. The spending plans cover the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. 

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this post. 


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