This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

The annual federal budget cycle is in high gear, as both the House and Senate are working toward a Fiscal Year 2020 spending bill for the U.S. Department of Education. The process began in mid-February when the Trump administration released a proposal that recommended a $64 billion budget for USDE, a $7.5 billion reduction from FY2019. Similar to last year, the administration sought to advance school choice options and reduce or consolidate several K-12 programs. The budget reflects Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commitment to reducing the federal government’s upper hand in education policy and allowing state and local leaders to have more autonomy. 

The Congressional Budget Office scored the president’s FY2020 budget request and reported that under the plan, the federal deficit would be trillions of dollars greater in a decade than the Office of Management and Budget first projected. The president’s FY2020 budget attempts to reduce the deficit by making deep cuts to non-defense spending while boosting military funding. Even so, the CBO found the budget proposal would still lead to $9.9 trillion in cumulative deficits over 10 years, about $2.7 trillion more than the White House estimated. 

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives largely ignored the president’s budget request. In May, the House Appropriations Committee passed a measure that would increase USDE funding by $4.4 billion over FY2019 spending, for a total budget of $75.9 billion. The committee recommended historic investments in programs from pre-K through postsecondary education, including special education and a variety of student support services. In its report, the committee took aim at for-profit institutions and borrower defense claims by directing DeVos to submit a detailed analysis of federal investments in all for-profit institutions and report on the status of discharge claims. 

In K-12 programs, the committee proposed cutting funds for charter schools by $40 million, while magnet schools would get $125 million more. Special education would benefit from an extra $1 billion, reflecting the largest increase to the program in more than a decade. 

In K-12 policy, the committee urged USDE to abandon a regulatory approach to outlining state requirements regarding “supplement, not supplant” under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and conduct negotiated rule-making instead. The aim is to ensure that poor and minority students get their fair share of state and local education funding. It requires that federal education funds enhance, but not replace, state and local funds. The department offered a position paper in January that gave states and school districts significant flexibility in crafting their own guidance. Democrats would like to see a federal-level conversation that results in a “meaningful standard for compliance,” an effort to impose more control in policy making. 

During markup of the bill, House Appropriations Labor/Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) offered an amendment to provide an additional $103 million for a variety of programs. Key increases include $10 million for career and technical education state grants; $5 million to continue the open textbook pilot program; $5 million for magnet schools; and $5 million for IDEA preschool grants. The bill passed on a 30-23 party-line vote. Seventeen amendments were debated, and six were adopted. Most Republican amendments failed. This appropriations bill had not been approved by the full House as of press time. 

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to introduce its appropriations bill this summer. That bill likely will be far different from the House version in several regards, including less funding. It is quite likely that the final appropriations bill approved by both the House and Senate will result in funding consistent with FY2019, with no new programs or eliminations. 

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program went into effect on Oct. 1, 2007, and was designed to forgive the federal student loan balance for graduates who work for 10 years in a public sector or nonprofit setting. To qualify, students had to have direct student loans, be on a qualified repayment plan and certify their employment with an eligible employer. When the first wave of borrowers hit their 10-year mark of service in fall 2017 and began seeking loan forgiveness, issues with the program became public.

Since then, Democrats have repeatedly blamed the Trump administration for the snags, while DeVos insists the structure Congress created made it difficult for borrowers to qualify for the program. 

Data from the Office of Federal Student Aid indicates there are several reasons borrowers are not initially qualifying for loan forgiveness. March 2019 data showed 53% lacked qualifying repayments, 25% of applications were incomplete, 16% were not eligible, 2% had ineligible employment dates, and another 2% were not employed by an eligible entity. 

The data only shows part of the story. Many of those affected shared their stories with national media outlets to bring attention to the program’s problems. Several applicants claimed they were misled by student loan servicing companies and placed on the wrong payment plans. Borrower confusion in understanding the program requirements also have come to light, and Congress and the Trump administration are looking for resolutions. 

Republicans and the Trump administration seem to be in favor of ending the loan forgiveness program. But Democrats, including a host of 2020 presidential candidates, want to simplify and expand the program through legislation. The path forward may be through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, with efforts led by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray. They are negotiating provisions for federal student aid programs that could address loan forgiveness program flaws. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats will pressure the Education Department to do more to work with borrowers and find solutions to resolve the high denial rates of the current program. 

This article is provided by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s lobby firm in Washington, D.C.