The Rubber Hits the Road

by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

In February, I wrote about what a Betsy DeVos Education Department might look like. Last night, the proverbial rubber hit the proverbial road when the Trump White House released “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” Basically, a fancy title for the President’s FY 2018 federal budget.

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If there is one thing to hand to President Trump, it is that he has done to the budget what he said he would do on the campaign trail. This draft significantly increases military spending and dramatically cuts almost everything else, with some exceptions. Total military spending will increase by $54 billion in FY 2018. That number, by the way, is far below what the congressional Republicans want for defense. But even with Trump’s increase, the share of discretionary spending allotted to military will account for more than the 54 percent in FY 2017. These military increases will be based on an ever-increasing foundation that increased during the Bush II Administration by 70 percent.

The Administration education is budgeted to shrink by 13 percent, or $9 billion, to help account for these large increases in military expenditures. This budget includes a $1.4 billion increase in school choice (totaling $20 billion), targeting charter schools and school choice. As well, it requires Title I funds to be used for open enrollment programs for school choice. Many programs are either eliminated or significantly reduced. The budget eliminates $2.4 billion teacher training grants and $1.2 billion for summer- and after-school programs. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program ($1.2 billion) is eliminated, and the federal GEAR UP program is reduced from $323 billion (FY 2017) to $219 billion (32 percent). TRIO programs are reduced $82 million to a total of $808 million. The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program for low-income students is eliminated ($732 million), and work-study programs are promised to be reduced “significantly,” although the numbers were not provided. Currently, $1.1 billion is provided to work-study programs to more than 670,000 college students averaging $1,600/year/student.

While plenty of people are getting hung up on these reductions to mainstream programs, it seems that people are missing the real point of this budget: it is a starting point not for this year, but for future years. That is, the FY 2018 Presidential Budget Request hints at future program eliminations, such as TRIO and GEAR UP. Are these cuts appropriate? Prudent? It depends on who one asks. Both TRIO and GEAR UP have been targeted by Republicans for decades due to a lack of clear evidence of program effectiveness. This conclusion is not necessarily incorrect. TRIO and GEAR UP programs vary greatly in impact, and the data to determine future effectiveness is largely absent. But this is the point: there needs to be a process for elimination and reduction, not just a tree-cutting swatch that is neither democratic nor scientific.

I expect a strong backlash by Democrats AND Republicans against these cuts, including those against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Meals on Wheels, and the EPA, to name only a few. But if military funding, through rhetoric based on fear rather than data, becomes the primary focus on budget issues, then something has to go somewhere. These softer programs become the true target of budget reductions, as will Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The federal government has a historical role to protect and provide safety net programs for low-income persons and those with cognitive and physical disabilities. If the federal government turns away from these students, then what?

The “then” will result in a serious dilemma which will likely result in even more catastrophic cuts in FY 2019 and FY 2020. Unless, of course, the mid-term elections in 2018 take away enough of the GOP lead in the House and return the Senate to Democrats. Even then, the Democrats will have to fight the third rail of federal politics: tax the rich and reduce the military. The right thing to do, but the type of politics they really don’t want to play. Bernie Sanders campaigned to do just this, but it is why he was never electable in America. To all Berners out there, it was never going to happen.

It can certainly be argued that cuts to federal spending—not necessarily cuts to federal taxation and revenues—are in order. Despite what many Democrats say, the federal government is bloated. Perhaps we are better establishing a BRAC (Base Realignment & Closure)-like Commission in each of the federal departments to reduce the size, scope, and spending of the federal government. Not many people like BRAC, which is used to determine which military bases to close, but it at least provides a vehicle for open discussion to determine where and how cuts happen.

Remember this: the Trump budget, even though it will not go as stated, is only the start of an austerity-like situation in America. If the Administration doesn’t play it accurately, it could reduce the GDP in the United States and increase the welfare state. With the cuts designed by the Trump Administration, that would be an unwarranted and perhaps unsustainable situation.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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