Janresseger: In Appropriations Bill, Congress Impedes Betsy DeVos’s Plans

There are reasons to worry that the Trump administration is leading our government in the wrong direction—reasons to worry, for example, about a bellicose foreign policy, the destruction of the environment, insufficient health care for the poor, and the failure to maintain our national parks—but in the recent spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, the bill to provide programs through the end of September, Congress protected the U.S. Department of Education.

The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann identifies Winners and Losers in the Spending Bill.Betsy DeVos is one of seven losers: “The Education Secretary wanted to spend more than $1 billion promoting vouchers while slashing funding for the rest of her department by $3.6 billion, mostly by taking it from programs that help the poor. She also wanted to make big cuts to the Office for Civil Rights and eliminate grant programs that support student mental-health. The final deal basically does the opposite of everything she asked for.  Her department’s funding goes up by $3.9 billion, but she gets zero of the dollars she wanted for the school choice program.  There’s a $700 million increase in funding for a mental health program that will fund school counselors… The Office for Civil Rights, after-school programs and early-childhood education programs all get money she said she didn’t want.”

The outcome of the recent Congressional appropriations bill for 2018 shouldn’t cause advocates for public education to sit back and relax, however. Betsy DeVos is known for decades of dogged lobbying and philanthropy underwriting her one idea—school privatization, which she defines as “letting parents choose a school that meets each child’s needs.”  She has also been quite willing to follow President Trump’s orders to make her department smaller and to undo rules and regulations imposed during the Obama administration to protect students’ civil rights, regulate unscrupulous for-profit colleges, and rein in the private contractors hired by the Department of Education as processors of college loans and debt collectors.

Congress is, however, paying attention. Here is a prominent example of Congress acting—right in last week’s appropriations bill—when problems in the U.S. Department of Education are brought to the attention of key committee members.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that career Education Department staffers recently notified members of Congress that DeVos had begun reorganizing her department, eliminating a budget office that works closely with Congress, a reorganization that is said even to have concerned Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, responded by inserting a provision into the omnibus 2018 spending bill that says: “Provided, That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, none of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year may be used for any activity relating to implementing a reorganization that decentralizes, reduces the staffing level, or alters the responsibilities, structure, authority, or functionality of the Budget Service of the Department of Education, relative to the organization and operation of the Budget Service as in effect on January 1, 2018.”

Washington’s Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has worked tirelessly to rein in DeVos. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes Murray’s satisfaction that Congress has so far been able to defend much of the federal government’s role to support public education and protect the rights of all students: “Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state praised the bipartisan agreement to dismiss the ‘extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education… I’m proud to have worked with Republicans in Congress to flatly reject these ideas and increase funding for programs Secretary DeVos tried to cut, including K-12 education, civil rights protections, college affordability, and more.'”

Before detailing the spending levels Congress appropriated last week, it is important to put all this into perspective.  According to a November 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spending by states and local school districts, which together have over ninety percent of the fiscal responsibility for public schools, remains lower in 29 states than before the Great Recession hit in 2008. And reductions in federal funding have exacerbated the problems for states and local school districts: “Federal funding for most forms of state and local aid has fallen.  Federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions…. (N)on-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy.  Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

In the 2018 appropriations bill passed last week, Congress kept spending levels for essential federal public school support at or somewhat above what was spent last year.  Here is Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describing the funding levels Congress appropriated: “Lawmakers boosted overall spending at the Education Department by $2.6 billion over previously enacted levels in fiscal 2018, up to $70.9 billion.  It’s the highest-ever appropriation for discretionary spending at the Education Department on paper, although not when you adjust for inflation.  In addition, funding for Title I, the biggest pot of federal money for public schools, which is earmarked for disadvantaged students, is rising by $300 million from fiscal 2017 enacted spending, up to $15.8 billion.” The 2018 appropriations bill also includes an additional $299 million for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a boost for that essential and (still drastically underfunded) federal program to $13.1 billion.  In opposition to Trump’s and DeVos’s wishes, Congress increased the budget for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from $109 to $117 million.

DeVos had proposed to eliminate Title II, which school districts use to provide professional development for teachers, but Congress funded it at the same level as last year.  DeVos had also proposed eliminating a huge after-school program,the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, in which school districts collaborate with community agencies. These programs are often incorporated as an essential piece in wraparound, full-service Community Schools. Instead of eliminating 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Congress added $20 million to bring the total budget up to $1.2 billion.

In other programs that support children and therefore assist public schools, Congress added $2.37 billion to the Child Care Development Block Grant and added $610 million to support Head Start.

Ujifusa concludes: “Trump’s budget plan for fiscal 2018 would have cut discretionary education spending by $9.2 billion.  So the final appropriations for fiscal 2018 are a significant rebuke of sorts to the president’s education vision.  In fact, the bill Trump signed into law omitted the $250 million private school choice initiative the president and DeVos sought, as well as a $1 billion program designed to encourage open enrollment in districts.

All of this reflects the voices of so many teachers, parents and citizens who have relentlessly pushed back against the extreme anti-government, anti-public education policies of Betsy DeVos and who, this year, have articulated strong support for the institution of public education.  Please keep on keeping on.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...