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Five key questions about Trump’s education budget

The broad outlines of President Trump’s vision for education are clear: Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to cut $10.6 billion from federal education programs and reinvest $1.4 billion of the savings in expanding school choice, according to budget documents obtained by The Washington Post.

But there are plenty of important details that remain unclear. Here are five key questions from The Post that remain unanswered in the documents.

Who would be affected by the proposal to end public service loan forgiveness?

The administration wants to end a decade-old program designed to help people pursue (often low-paying) careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders or doctors in rural areas. There are at least half a million graduates who are on track to receive the benefit, with the first wave of forgiveness set for this fall.

It is not clear whether Trump intends to grandfather those people into the program and allow their loans to be forgiven — or whether those borrowers would be stuck with a much larger bill than they are expecting. The Post posed that question to spokesmen at the Education Department, but they did not respond and instead provided a statement cautioning that all budget figures are preliminary until they are released next week. Without an answer, borrowers are feeling unsettled.

How would Trump’s proposal affect borrowers on income-driven repayment plans?

Making good on a campaign promise, Trump has proposed to consolidate five existing income-driven repayment plans into one. The consolidation would likely make for a better deal for borrowers paying back loans they took out to earn an undergraduate degree. Currently, they can have the balance of their loan forgiven after paying 10 percent of their income for 20 years. Under Trump’s proposal, they would pay more — 12.5 percent of income — but over a shorter period, 15 years.

Borrowers paying back loans for advanced degrees, on the other hand, would get a worse deal, paying a higher percentage over a longer period — 30 years instead of 25. It’s not clear whether borrowers already in income-driven repayment plans would be converted to the new plan.

How much money would the proposed financial aid revisions save the federal government?

Besides ending public service loan forgiveness and reforming income-driven repayment plans, the administration is also proposing to end subsidized loans (for which the government pays interest while the student is in school) and Perkins loans for low-income students. How much would that save over time? It isn’t clear from the budget documents. In 2015, the policy director for the House Budget Committee testified that ending public-service loan forgiveness would result in a 10-year savings of $10.5 billion (hat tip to EdSource reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn for recalling that testimony).

How would the $1 billion public-school choice program work?

Title I funds for poor children are distributed to states and districts based on a set of formulas. But Trump is proposing to use $1 billion of those funds in a different way. He wants to offer that money in the form of grants to districts that agree to adopt weighted student funding, which allots money to schools based on the needs of the children they serve; that adopt open enrollment policies, which allow parents to choose schools besides their assigned neighborhood school, and that allow federal, state and local dollars to follow each student to the public school of their choice.

It is not clear how much money each district would be eligible for, but the documents suggest that grant size would depend in part on the size of each school district seeking funds. It also isn’t clear whether the grants would be competitive or would be available to any district that met the requirements laid out by the department.

Trump’s first full education budget: Deep cuts to public school programs in pursuit of school choice

How would the $250 million private-school choice program work?

The Education Department funds Education Research and Innovation Grants, which, according to the Federal Register, are designed to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement … and rigorously evaluate such innovations.” The fund was set at $120 million per year for the first half of fiscal 2017.

Trump would add another $250 million for the purpose of expanding and researching vouchers that help low-income students attend private schools, including both secular and — the budget documents specify — religious private schools. It isn’t clear how much of that money would go toward research vs. the vouchers themselves or how much any individual applicant could receive to create or expand a voucher program.