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Trump School Choice Proposals, K-12 Cuts Again Rebuffed by Senators

Senators doused more cold water on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' vision of a big new investment in school choice, approving legislation that seeks to bar the administration from using federal funding for vouchers or public school choice.

The legislation received bipartisan support from the full Senate appropriations committee Thursday, a day after a subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy made the same call. It also rejects the Trump administration's plans to dramatically slash spending at the U.S. Department of Education.

It would continue funding for two high-profile programs the Trump administration is seeking to scrap entirely: 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 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 conferenced with the Senate measure, would seek to scrap that program entirely. The House's version of the bill would 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 bill includes a lot more money for the department's bottom line than the administration wanted. It 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.

Dissing School Choice

The bill aims to hamstring the Education Department's ability to move forward on a pair of school choice programs it proposed in its budget request, released last spring.

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. The administration 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 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 needs to get the OK from Congress to create a school choice initiative with the funds.

This isn't the first setback for DeVos' school choice ambitions. The full House of Representatives approved a funding bill Thursday 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 verison of which is currently in place in at least 16 states, would give a tax break to individuals or corporations who donate to 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.  

Pell Grant Changes

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 computer science programs to band instruments and Advanced Placement test fees, is currently receiving $400 million. It is slated to receive $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 Head Start program, an early-childhood education program for low-income children, would receive $9.3 billion. That's about the same as current levels. The House version of the 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. 

Democrats supported the bill overall, but expressed serious concerns about its skimpy funding levels. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., offered an amendment that would have included a $590 million increase for Head Start, among other priorities. It failed on a partisan vote. 

Other highlights

  • The bill would provide level funding for special education state grants, keeping them at about $12.2 billon.
  • 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 to the program.
  • The bill includes $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 provide grants to help school districts create pay-for-performance programs. The program would get $190 million, about $10 million less than it is getting currently.

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