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Trump seeks to slash $8.5 billion from Education Department budget

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump is again proposing to cut billions of dollars from the Education Department, seeking to eliminate after-school programs, teacher training and grants for other school needs. But his budget proposal would create a $5 billion program to help children attend private schools.

The administration’s request to cut more than $8.5 billion — about 12 percent — from the Education Department budget is unlikely to gain traction in Congress, where members of Trump’s party have rejected previous proposals to gut the agency. With Democrats controlling the House, the proposal faces even higher hurdles.

Jim Blew, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, said the proposal reflected the administration’s push to shrink the size and role of the federal government. But he acknowledged it faced long odds on Capitol Hill.

“We’re coming back again asking for a reduction because the administration believes we need to reduce the amount of discretionary funding for the Education Department,” Blew said in a conference call Monday. “That is based on a desire to have some fiscal discipline and to address some higher-priority needs for the administration around the federal government.”

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The $5 billion plan to support scholarships for children to attend private schools was pitched this month by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It would be administered by the Treasury Department and would encourage taxpayers to donate to scholarship funds by offering a dollar-for-dollar deduction on federal taxes.

“This budget at its core is about education freedom — freedom for America’s students to pursue their life-long learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them,” DeVos said in a news release.

Critics view tax-credit scholarships as a backdoor way to route taxpayer dollars to private schools. Even those who support school choice fear the federal program will lead to more government scrutiny of private schools.

DeVos pitches new tax credit to support school-choice programs

Trump’s budget request again seeks to cut popular programs, including one that supports after-school activities for children in impoverished communities and another that offers wide-ranging grants that underwrite textbooks, equipment, counseling services and other needs for schools. That pool of money — the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program — also underwrites school safety efforts, including mental-health services and school safety equipment.

The administration wants to eliminate a $2 billion grant program for teacher professional development. But it is hoping to increase funding for a grant program that would give teachers “vouchers” and allow them to pick their own professional development.

The higher-education provisions in the budget feature many of the same ideas from previous requests, including the consolidation or elimination of some federal student-aid programs.

DeVos again wants to end loan forgiveness for public-sector workers and slash more than half of the budget for college work-study programs. Those proposals failed in a Republican-led Congress and have even less of a chance with the Democrats controlling the House.

As in past years, the Trump administration is placing a premium on career training. The Education Department is asking Congress for $1.3 billion to fund vocational education in high schools, trade schools and community colleges, an increase of $12.6 million. The agency is also seeking an additional $60 million to expand apprenticeship programs.

With the Education Department in the midst of revamping the way it administers federal loans and grants, the agency is asking for more money to execute that overhaul. DeVos wants $1.8 billion for the project, the Next Generation Financial Services Environment, widely known as NextGen. That represents a $133 million spending increase on managing the federal student loan portfolio, according to Blew.

In its budget priorities, the White House said it would promote risk sharing, or “skin in the game,” a proposal that would force colleges to pay up when their students default on federal education loans. No such provision was included in the Education Department budget, although Blew said discussions were underway to sketch out a plan. The idea of having schools share in the risk of borrowing has garnered bipartisan support in the past, although legislation to that end has failed.

The budget includes other education initiatives:

●Permitting low-income students who receive Pell Grants to use them to enroll in short-term programs. Students are currently prohibited from using grant money to pay for academic programs that are shorter than 15 weeks or have fewer than 600 hours of instruction time. At the same time, the Trump administration wants to extract $2 billion from the reserves for Pell, a move that advocacy groups say could jeopardize the program.

● Tucking the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants, federal aid for the children of deceased service members, into the Pell program to protect it from automatic spending cuts under sequestration, a package of cuts that is part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

●Ending subsidized loans through which the federal government pays interest while an undergraduate borrower is in school. This would apply to loans originated on or after July 1, 2020, and help save an estimated $207 billion over 10 years.

●Revamping the allocation formula for the work-study program to provide funding based, in part, on a college’s enrollment of Pell Grant recipients.

●Shaving millions off the federal appropriations for Howard and Gallaudet universities, federally chartered private institutions in the District.

●Folding five income-driven student loan repayment plans into a single plan to the benefit of undergraduate borrowers, who currently can have the balance of their loan forgiven after paying 10 percent of their income for 20 years. The proposal makes good on a campaign promise to shorten the payment period to 15 years for those who borrowed as undergraduates, but it raises monthly payments to 12.5 percent of income for those who got loans as undergraduate and graduate students. Borrowers with loans from graduate school, though, would have to pay for longer: 30 years.

●Automatically enroll people who are severely behind on their loan payments in an income-driven plan, which could help bring down the default rate.

●Eliminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and the Gear Up program, which helps disadvantaged students in middle and high schools prepare for college.