The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Special Olympics funding outcry is over, but it’s been crickets over some of DeVos’s other proposed education budget cuts. Think civics, history, arts . . .

Agents stood watch last week when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared on Capitol Hill to testify about the Trump administration's proposed budget for her agency. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX)

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating a $4.8 million program to enhance American civics and history education. It has also called for making these cuts that would eliminate programs:

  • $1.2 billion for programs that help boost student academic achievement before and after school and during the summer.
  • $190 million to boost literacy instruction from birth to age 20, plus $27 million for grants aimed at improving literacy by supporting school libraries, professional development for school librarians and the provision of high-quality books to children and adolescents in low-income communities.
  • $27 million for arts education programs for children from low-income families and students with disabilities.
  • $10 million to boost community schools, which address the comprehensive academic, social and health services of students and families.
  • More than $207 billion over 10 years from student loan programs, including the elimination of hundreds of millions of dollars that go toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness and of Stafford subsidized loans for low-income students

And there are plenty of other cuts the Trump administration proposed for 2020 for the Education Department. They include a reduction of more than 55 percent in federal funds for the Federal Work-Study program, which helps students who have to work while attending college.

The other cuts just haven’t gotten the same attention as the outcry over a failed attempt to eliminate federal funding to Special Olympics.

Let’s review:

President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget proposed the elimination of the nearly $18 million that goes to Special Olympics.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went to Capitol Hill last week to defend the budget, as she is supposed to do, though during testimony she conceded she hadn’t signed off on that particular decision. The Michigan billionaire has personally contributed to the organization.

A hurricane-force public reaction ensued, with social media exploding and news reports airing interviews with Special Olympics athletes saying how worried they were about the proposed cut — even though there was virtually no chance Congress would approve it. The administration attempted to do this the two previous years, and Congress didn’t go for it.

DeVos was called cruel and uncaring, and Trump, after being alerted to the public relations firestorm, announced he would allow the money to be added back to his proposed budget.

This raises a question that Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, put succinctly in a tweet, asking people to stop talking about “never-gonna-happen” cuts to Special Olympics and “start talking about the real impact” of other Trump/DeVos education budget decisions that will affect millions of people.

To be sure, some of the following programs have detractors, who say the initiatives are not as effective as they should be or are too difficult to administer. Trump critics say, however, that the programs’ missions are important, and instead of eliminating or reducing them, they should be improved.

Trump and DeVos are proposing to keep the two major K-12 programs — Title 1, intended to help students who live in poverty, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — at the same funding level as this year. To advocates, that’s not much of a victory, because both are vastly underfunded.

Title 1 is part of the federal K-12 education law, currently called the Every Student Succeeds Act, that provides money that is supposed to go to high-poverty schools to help educate students. IDEA was passed to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities.

Full federal funding of IDEA is the top federal policy priority of the superintendents association, because it is so important but so underfunded. The 1975 law calls for Congress to provide to districts 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities but it has never done so. The current federal funding level is at 14.7 percent of the average expenditure per pupil — and has never even reached 20 percent.

Keeping the level of funding the same is hardly a serious commitment to improving education for students with disabilities (and the same holds true for all of the earlier administrations that did not fully fund the program).

Title 1 — funded at $15.9 billion — is intended to close the gap between poor and wealthier school districts, which in this country are largely funded by property taxes. Thus, poorer neighborhoods have less money to spend on public schools.

A 2018 report by the nonprofit Education Trust said school districts serving the largest populations of black, Latino or Native American students receive roughly $1,800 less per student — 13 percent less — in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. For a school district with 5,000 students, it says, that gap amounts to $9 million a year less for the poor districts, where students’ needs are higher.

Though Title 1 money is supposed to go to districts and schools with large percentages of students from low-income households, the distribution formula has about 20 percent of the funding going to systems with less than half of their students coming from poor families, according to a 2016 U.S. News & World Report article.

The superintendents association urges Congress to raise funding for Title 1, but that’s not what Trump and DeVos have in mind.

It is their stated philosophy to expand alternatives to traditional public school systems through charter schools — publicly funded but privately operated — as well as vouchers, tax credits and similar programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition.

That’s why their proposed budget seeks to create a $5 billion federal tax credit that would use public funds to send students to private and religious schools. And it includes a $60 million boost to the U.S. Charter Schools Program.

But the administration wants to eliminate or cut dozens of K-12 and higher education programs (you can see the entire list in the proposed budget below and in an analysis of that budget by the AASA).

For example, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, funded at $1.2 billion, would be eliminated if Congress agrees. These centers support before-school, after-school and summer academic enrichment opportunities for nearly 2 million students at about 11,500 schools. Supporters say the program is effective and provides safe places for children. The Trump administration says the program “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives” and that only two-fifths of participants attend on a regular basis.

The government spends $4.8 million on American history and civics education programs to, obviously, improve the quality of American history and civics education. The Trump administration says the grants haven’t served enough teachers and have had “limited impact.” The administration tried to eliminate the programs for 2019, but Congress gave them a 37 percent boost for 2019.

The administration wants to eliminate the $29 million arts in education programs for children and youth, which emphasize serving students from low-income families and students with disabilities. The Trump administration says it has had “limited impact” and that other federal, state, local and private funds can better support these activities.

And there’s the proposed zeroing-out of the Comprehensive Literacy grants, currently at $190 million, which are designed to improve literacy instruction from birth through grade 12. The administration says the program has limited impact and duplicates other initiatives.

Add to that the Innovative Approaches to Literacy grants, funded at $27 million, which aim to improve literacy through support of school libraries, professional development for school librarians and the provision of high-quality books to children and adolescents in low-income communities. The administration says schools should use Title 1 funds instead.

DeVos said in her testimony to Congress last week, when she sought to defend the proposed budget: “In the end, budgets are about priorities."

These numbers tell you about theirs.

Here’s the proposed 2020 Education Department budget from the Trump administration:

And here’s an analysis by the AASA: