The Senate Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve a spending bill that rejects President Trump’s proposed cuts to education funding for fiscal year 2018 and, for now at least, derails the administration’s goal of directing federal dollars toward promoting and expanding school choice and private school vouchers.
The 29 to 2 vote on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Bill further illustrates the president's difficulty in moving his education agenda through Congress despite Republican control of the House and Senate.
Earlier this year, the president had proposed a budget for the Education Department that represented a nearly 14 percent cut, or $9.2 billion, in spending, some of it for programs popular with Republicans. Members of the Senate Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations Subcommittee dismissed that request Wednesday and instead voted unanimously to increase overall spending for the department by $29 million.
House lawmakers had also rejected many of the administration’s proposed cuts, but did approve overall cuts of about $2.4 billion. Agreement on a final budget is not expected until later this year.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Senate action.
Among the largest cuts sought by the administration were $2 billion to a federal program used to hire and train teachers, and $1.2 billion to a program that helps school districts pay for after-school and summer learning programs. The Senate bill left both programs untouched. The action did not come as a surprise, because leaders in both parties had made known their opposition to the administration's plan to slash education spending.
“The kinds of cuts that are proposed in this budget will not occur,” subcommittee chairman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said in June.
The subcommittee vote Wednesday was praised by the nation’s governors, who said states would not be able to compensate for the proposed cuts to the programs.
“Today, despite a difficult fiscal reality, Senate appropriators found a way to protect and increase funding that states depend on to build a foundation for students, families and communities to live a successful life and to ensure strong state economies,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) wrote in a statement on behalf of the National Governors Association.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an outspoken proponent of school choice, spelled out the administration’s guiding principle in the budget summary: “School choice increases equity for our nation’s students and families by placing power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children.”
The administration’s budget called for $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. And it also added $1 billion for school choice to the Title I program, the K-12 program aimed at providing money for public school districts with a large percentage of students from low-income families.
Both requests were shot down by Senate lawmakers, who made clear that using federal dollars for private school vouchers is not an idea they will support.
"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," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. "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."
The Senate’s bill did increase federal funding for charter schools by $25 million, though that was well below the administration’s request for a $167 million bump.