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Senate Panel Rejects Trump Teacher-Funding Cut, School Choice Proposals

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Lawmakers overseeing education spending dealt a big blow to the Trump administration's K-12 budget asks in a spending bill approved by a bipartisan vote Wednesday.

The legislation would leave intact the main federal programs aimed at teacher training and after-school funding. And it would seek to bar the U.S. Department of Education from moving forward with two school choice initiatives it pitched in its request for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1.

The bill, which was approved unanimously by the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees health, education and labor spending, would provide $2.05 billion for Title II, the federal program that's used to hire and train educators. Both the House spending committee and the Trump administration have proposed scrapping the program, so it remains in jeopardy despite the Senate's support.

The measure rejects another high-profile cut pitched by the Trump administration, $1.2 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which helps school districts cover the cost of after-school and summer-learning programs. The House also refused to sign off on the Trump administration's pitch to eliminate the program. Instead, it voted to provide $1 billion for 21st Century, meaning the program would almost certainly see some funding in the 2018-19 school year. 

The panel also dealt a blow to the administration's school choice ambitions. And the bill seeks to stop the Education Department from moving forward on a pair of school choice programs it proposed in its budget request.

The administration had sought 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. The Trump administration had wanted to use that increase to help districts create or expand public school choice programs. And it had hoped to use the Education Innovation and Research program 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 U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team the authority to use that money for school choice. In fact, the committee said in language accompanying the bill that the secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must get permission from Congress to create a school choice initiative with the funds.

A House appropriations panel also rejected the school choice initiatives in a budget bill approved earlier this year. Taken together, that's a major setback for DeVos' number one priority.

But the Senate  bill does include 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.  

Compromise Measure

Overall, the legislation would provide $68.3 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, a slight increase of $29 million over the current level for fiscal year 2017, which ends on Sept. 30 and generally impacts the 2017-18 school year. That's in contrast to the House proposal, which would provide $66 billion for the department, down $2.4 billion from the current budget.

And it's a lot more than the Trump adminstration asked for. The president wanted a $9.2 billion cut to the agency's bottom-line, down to $59 billion.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee acknowledged that the bipartisan agreement isn't the bill either side would have written on its own.

"Both sides approached this bill differently. It's important to reach agreement and present a bipartisan bill," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the panel, said during debate. He thanked Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, for her help in "determining the priorities and determining how to best use limited resources."

In a statement released after the markup, Murray said: "After millions of students, parents, and teachers stood up and rejected Secretary DeVos' extreme privatization agenda, I'm pleased that Republicans and Democrats in Congress ignored her requests to gut programs that help students from preschool to college and beyond, and instead continued to invest in the overwhelming majority of students who attend public schools."

Murray also said that "while this budget is not what I would have proposed on my own, I am pleased we are continuing to invest in our students and educators and I will continue to hold Secretary DeVos accountable if she tries to undermine our public schools." 

Block Grant Funding

The committee is proposing $450 million for another program that the administration sought to scrap, 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 everything from computer science programs to band instruments and Advanced Placement test fees, is currently receiving $400 million, and would get $500 million under a bill approved by the House appropriations committee earlier this year.

The bill also would increase the maximum Pell Grant for the first time in over a decade, from $5,920 to $6,020. The grants help low-income students cover the cost of postsecondary education, and advocates say they haven't kept up with rising college costs. The bill would allow students to use the grants year-round, not just during the academic year.

But there may be more bad news than good for Pell Grants in the bill. The Pell Grant program currently has a surplus of funds. This bill would take  $2.6 billion out of a surplus in Pell Grant funding and divert to other priorities, to the chagrin of advocates for college access. 

The bill would provide level funding for special education state grants, keeping them at about $12.2 billon. And 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 cut to the program.

And it includes small increases for other programs, including $953 million for TRIO, a college preparation program, a $3 million hike over current funding, and $1.3 billion for impact aid, an $11.5 million increase. Impact aid helps school districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a military base or native American reservation.

The bill seeks a slight cut for the Teacher and Leader Incentive Fund, which provides grants to help school districts create pay-for-performance programs. The program would get $190 million, about $10 million less than it currently receives.

The measure would provide $9.3 billion for Head Start program, an early childhood education program for low-income children. That's the same as current levels. 

The full Senate appropriations committee will consider the measure Thursday. 

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
-- J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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