This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Classroom Teacher. It is courtesy of TCTA's Washington, D.C., lobby firm Van Scoyoc Associates.

Secretary Betsy DeVos presented the Fiscal Year 2021 Department of Education budget request to both the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committees in late February. The department’s overall budget request is $66.6 billion, a $5.6 billion reduction from FY2020. The decrease in spending is part of an overall White House budget plan to reduce non-defense discretionary spending and achieve objectives of reducing federal bureaucracy and improving fiscal discipline. Congress is likely to ignore President Donald Trump’s budget proposal to cut nondefense discretionary spending in fiscal 2021, instead sticking to higher levels set in last year’s bipartisan budget caps deal. House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said “as with his previous budgets, this one is going nowhere.” 

While the tone of the hearings varied by chamber, there was consensus that Congress would continue to fund department programs at levels higher than the administration requested. Last year, the education budget request provided a 10 percent overall reduction, which Congress ignored. This year the request represents a 7.8 percent reduction from the previous year’s enacted level. The tone of the House hearing was harsh at times, prompting Republican members to rebuke offending colleagues in an attempt to restore civility. 

The most significant priority in the FY2021 request is a proposal to make structural changes in Title I funding programs. Within the K-12 section, 29 programs were recommended to be clustered together in a single state block grant program, referred to as the Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged Block Grant. Consolidation also would include the Teacher Quality Partnership Program that supports projects to improve the preparation of teachers, enhance professional development activities for teachers, and strengthen accountability for teacher preparation programs and the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program that allows pilots of performance-based compensation systems to drive increased student outcomes. 

The administration’s rationale is that in consolidating these programs, states would have more flexibility to determine individual program funding where needed most, which is in parallel with the Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law in 2015. State and local officials would gain more control over how to spend federal dollars on public education and take responsibility for the allocation of federal dollars to schools in each district. 

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate’s Education Appropriations Subcommittee, suggested further conversations could be held on the consolidation of Title I programs, but said for FY2021 they would “write the appropriations bill under current law.” He also voiced concern about the potential impacts the block grant structure would have on programs such as the Charter Schools Program, which he has endorsed for years. Many members would seek to protect budget line items for programs that are significant to their district and home state rather than agree to a redistribution favored by their own party’s administration. 

Reducing the federal imprint on education policy has long been a priority for the Trump administration. Democrats are concerned that under this proposal vulnerable and low-income students would not receive targeted program funds to help close achievement gaps as funding could be reallocated elsewhere in the district. Block grant funds would be allocated by formula, as prescribed by ESSA Title I, to the Local Educational Agencies program. The formula that USDE follows is actually a compilation of four formulas, the most significant of which is based on poverty estimates updated annually by the Census Bureau. Also, some of the 29 Title I programs are competitively awarded. Rolling them into a new formula-based program could potentially provide funding to recipients without demonstrating merit-based need. 

USDE counters that education agencies would have to continue to submit accountability plans that are consistent with those currently required by ESSA. That includes provisions describing how the education agency will meet the needs of economically disadvantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless children and youth, and neglected and delinquent students, and would require rigorous interventions for the bottom 5% of schools, as well as those schools with the largest subgroup achievement and attainment gaps. Democrats fear that USDE would not apply stringent oversight of state plans and would rubber-stamp approvals. 

The administration’s budget request again proposes a department priority in establishing Education Freedom Scholarships. This program would establish a federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-designed scholarship programs for elementary and secondary students, capped at $5 billion per year. Rep. DeLauro contended this proposal, which has been presented each year, “seeks to privatize public education” and would not move forward in the Democrat-controlled House. 

Secretary DeVos countered that restructuring the programs offers “personalization, it’s not about privatization.” She reflected that since 1980 the department’s K-12 budget has grown from $7 billion to $41 billion in 2020. But she said this increase in spending has not resulted in any real improvement in student achievement. Rather than continuing to dictate how federal dollars are spent, she said giving local districts flexibility they don’t have today would allow districts to target programs “to the kids who need it most.” Democrats pointed out that the proposed consolidation of Title I programs comes with an overall funding cut, resulting in a reduction of services to those most in need. Rural communities could be more harshly impacted as these districts often struggle with lower student populations, higher transportation costs and a higher concentration of vulnerable students. 

The budget called for eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a recommendation that has appeared in previous budget proposals. “The administration feels that incentivizing one type of work and one type of job over another is not called for,” DeVos said. The proposal sunsets the PSLF for anyone who takes out their first student loan on or after July 1, 2021, and would not impact existing borrowers who are paying off student loans under the loan forgiveness program. 

The budget request also allocated $900 million in new spending on career and technical education, up $680 million or 53 percent over the 2020 enacted level. The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility for short-term credentials offered by colleges as well as higher education programs in prisons was supported in the budget request. 

Other higher-education highlights include: 

  • A proposal to simplify the student loan programs by providing one loan option to each type of borrower (undergraduate, graduate and parent).
  • Reforming the Federal Work-Study program from a model that provides subsidized employment for campus-based jobs to a program that supports workforce and career-oriented opportunities for low-income undergraduate students.
  • Eliminating funding for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program that allocates financial aid to students with exceptional financial need. 
  • Transitioning the Federal TRIO Programs from a series of five competitive grant programs to a single Student Supports Block Grant to states.

Secretary DeVos was asked about the pending Title IX/campus sexual assault final rule, specifically if the rule would apply to incidents at off-campus housing and at a “covered university program or activity” as the proposed rule stated. DeVos replied that it would not be appropriate for her to comment as the rule was not final, sidestepping another controversial department policy. 

Lawmakers will begin crafting FY2021 appropriations bills in the coming weeks with hopes of having them approved in committee by the end of July. Given the fall election schedule, it is likely the FY 2021 federal budget won’t be given full approval until after Nov. 3.