Education Research: How the Trump Budget Stacks Up
The White House's full budget proposal, released Tuesday, gives more clarity on the future of federal education research funding—but could be a mixed blessing for advocates.
The Institute of Education Sciences escaped largely unscathed in a budget that proposes deep cuts to education programs generally and to education and social science research in other agencies, as compared to the current spending under Congress' April budget agreement and the enacted fiscal 2016 levels. The Education Department does propose to more than double funding for a key Obama-era research competition to use as a vehicle for expanding private school vouchers.
"The general direction is very distressing," said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. "Education research has made extraordinary gains in the last 15 years and is now producing more practical, proven strategies for schools to use. To simply say we're not interested in that anymore would be a real shame."
Cutting education research generally "sends a terrible message," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. "It's especially dangerous because often people understand the value of research in general, but they don't understand what goes into it. It's not sexy—but boy, it sure does matter."
Institute of Education Sciences
For fiscal 2018, President Donald Trump proposed $617 million for the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research arm. That's up slightly from Congress' current spending levels, but still down slightly from the agency's fiscal 2016 spending level. (For more details on the Education Department budget proposal, see my colleague Andrew Ujifusa's coverage over at Politics K-12.)
"It does appear that IES looks OK," said Michele McLaughlin, president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates on behalf of public and private research groups. She said she was particularly relieved that the agency's research and development centers would be flat-funded at $195 million and its comprehensive centers would receive $51 million; both are expected to support state and district implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. "IES is meant to be a nonpartisan source of education research, and it's valued by people on both sides of the aisle, so it's good to see it wasn't cut."
The White House also proposes to use the Education Innovation and Research grants—run by ED's Office of Innovation and Improvement rather than IES—to expand private school vouchers. The grants, launched in the Every Student Succeeds Act as the successor to the Obama-era Investing in Innovation grants, require increasing levels of research evidence for grants to develop, validate and scale up promising programs.
"There seems this terrible irony of this innovation program that was a real baby of the Obama administration to be made into a voucher program," Ferguson said. "That's almost Shakespearean."
As the budget proposal describes:
"A portion of the [grant] funds would support efforts to test and build evidence for the effectiveness of private school choice as a strategy for: 1) expanding school choices for parents who wish to send their children to high quality private schools; 2) improving educational outcomes for students from low-income families or students enrolled in persistently low-performing schools; and 3) increasing competition in order to improve the quality and performance of all schools."
It's not immediately clear how the program would do this, but the Trump administration could set private school vouchers as an "absolute priority" of grants at one or all levels of the program. For example, applicants for the current round of grants must meet one of several different absolute priorities for different levels, such as early-stage grants for improving principal effectiveness or mid-stage grants for improving early learning.
Slavin, the founder of Success For All, a program which won multiple grants under the i3 version of the program, said it would make sense to have vouchers and charters "as part of an array of possibilities under EIR or other funding," but he added "to the degree that the direction here is to reduce education research in general or limit it to the area of school choice and vouchers, that's very disturbing."
Research Funding at Health and Human Services, National Science Foundation, and the Census
At the Health and Human Service Department, the White House proposes $1.032 billion for the National Center for Child Health and Human Development, a 23 percent cut from fiscal 2017. That's in keeping with the Trump administration's overall HHS budget proposal, which would reduce research grants in general by more than $3.7 billion, or abut 21 percent.
The budget blueprint highlights the importance of the Centers for Disease Control's research into birth defects and geographic tracking of the more than 120,000 children born with birth defects every year, but it cuts the program to $100 million, $35 million below the fiscal 2017 level. The proposal also would reduce spending on the CDC's $35 million child lead poisoning prevention program, which includes a database launched in 2017 to track child lead exposure, to $17 million.
At the National Science Foundation, the education directorate would be cut nearly 14 percent from current spending levels, to $760.5 million. Social, behavioral, and economic research across the agency would be cut by $28 million, to $244 million.
Research advocates are also concerned about the proposed $1.52 billion funding for the Census Bureau. That's up from current spending, but experts warn it's far from enough. The decennial budget is cyclical, and usually spikes at this point, as the bureau enters the final phase of preparations for the 2020 Census. "Failure to fund this cyclical ramp-up for the 2020 Census would severely jeopardize the fairness and accuracy of the next decennial census," wrote local and national research and government groups in a letter to Congress last month.
That view was echoed by Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, which advocates on behalf of the surveys. "If the Trump budget is enacted, we face the possibility of an historic Census disaster," he said.
Taking the Long View
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said the proposals more generally suggest that "education policy is being viewed too narrowly" by the administration.
"The research [approach] is particularly problematic, because that's really the seed of the future, and if we don't learn from our current situation, our current good and bad programs, it's hard to get any improvement," Hanushek said. "Clearly, the Census is an important activity of the government going beyond the simple constitutional requirements of counting the people for the legislature. On a number of these issues that involve data collection or long-term research projects, actions today can have huge ramifications for the policies and programs we use in the future."
The Center on Education Policy's Ferguson agreed. "For me the larger issue around the research budget cuts is the lack of understanding regarding why education research matters. You can't assess and improve the performance outcomes of any investment without research or data," Ferguson said. "If the federal government is going to invest billions of dollars in education programs, a healthy portion of that money should go to support a wide range of research to help policymakers and local educators/leaders make informed strategic decisions about those programs."
It's not clear yet how warm a reception the White House proposal will get in Congress, and Trump will be on a diplomatic trip for the first several days of reaction.
"I have a really hard time believing Donald Trump will waste a lot of political capital on education; it just doesn't seem like something he's really interested in," Ferguson said. "It will be interesting to see how it all plays out."
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