The 2020 Education Budget - "Education Freedom" or "Cruel and Reckless"

On March 11th, President Trump submitted his FY2020 Budget proposal to Congress, as required by law. However, the proposal is just that, a proposal. While the budget release is widely reported on, Congress doesn’t generally see it as more than a suggestion, with some Administration themes, priorities, and initiatives sprinkled in for good measure.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared before the House and Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittees to defend the $65 billion proposal—a $7.1 billion to $8.5 billion cut (depending on the calculation) from the previous year.

Secretary DeVos started her testimony highlighting the proposal theme of “education freedom” and saying of the budget, “We propose Congress spend [taxpayer] money wisely, efficiently, and with restraint.” These statements are foundational to the White House’s Department of Education proposal.

Ideologically, the Administration would like to further devolve educational authority to the states and increase the states’ fiscal responsibility with regard to educational programs. These efforts are reflected in some of the Administration’s major initiatives, such as establishing a federal tax credit for voluntary state-designed scholarship programs for elementary and secondary students to increase access to school choice and expanding flexibility for professional development programs for teachers.

Further, the Secretary asserted that the Department of Education budget proposal, with a 10-12 percent decrease from the current year, was written to satisfy Budget Control Act funding restrictions (sequestration/“budget caps”), which Congress has yet to resolve for FY2020.

The proposed cuts are deep. In all, the White House suggested the elimination of 29 federal education programs including support for the Special Olympics, after school programs, literacy initiatives, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, and subsidized loans for low-income students.

In the House, the Administration’s Education Budget proposal immediately received harsh and sustained criticism, with Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) calling the proposal “cruel and reckless.” Further, the proposal received push back from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers.

The criticism was so severe that President Trump, last week, changed course saying, “The Special Olympics will be funded. I just told my people: I want to fund the Special Olympics.” Of course, Congress was never likely to accept this elimination, but the President’s quick retreat was notable. It is unclear whether the President will submit an amendment to the budget request replacing the $17.5 million cut to Special Olympics with a different spending reduction.

To put Congress’ adherence to the President’s Budget proposal into perspective, in FY2018, the Administration proposed $62.9 billion for the Department of Education, and Congress appropriated $70.6 billion. In FY2019, the Administration proposed $63.2 billion for the Department of Education, and Congress appropriated $71.1 billion.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill is likely to be among the first considered in the House of Representatives. As the FY2020 budget and appropriations process continues, the ability of Congress to reach a new two-year agreement, increasing existing total spending caps, may be determinative of whether this and other appropriations bills can be written and enacted into law.

For FY2020, expect Congressional appropriations to, once again, look much different than the President’s Education Budget proposal. Whether this process ultimately results in enacted law funding federal education investments or another federal government shutdown is yet to de be determined.

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