Higher Education

Does the education budget reveal a ‘DeVos Doctrine?’

The Hechinger team takes apart the proposed cuts and school choice expansion

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Butrymowicz, Meredith Kolodner, Emmanuel Felton and Jackie Mader

This chat has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Butrymowicz: It’s already been a big news week for the Department of Education and it’s only Wednesday. On Monday, Betsy DeVos gave a speech in which she promised President Trump would propose the most ambitious school choice plan in history in his budget. And then on Tuesday, that budget was released.

There is, indeed, a lot of money set aside for choice. There are also a lot of other programs that would be reduced or eliminated. Seemed like a good time to assemble some of my colleagues to debrief. There is so much in here, I won’t even pretend we’ll be able to cover all of it in one chat. But I still want to get everyone’s first impressions on what’s being cut and what’s not.

First up: What do you think is the most significant cut?

Jackie Mader: That’s hard to choose… There are a lot of cuts.

Meredith Kolodner: Yeah, it kind of depends on how you define it — biggest financial amount? Most students affected?

Sarah: I’ll let you define however you want.

Emmanuel Felton: There’s about $10 billion in cuts here so it’s hard to pick one. The Office for Civil Rights would see a 7 percent staff cut. On yesterday’s media call, the administration  said that they were prioritizing data collection in the cuts. This budget seems to shift some of the responsibility for enforcing civil rights to the districts and states, because it’s unclear how much the smaller staff will be able to act on that data. The number of civil rights complaints are already way up and I mean in this climate, it wouldn’t be crazy to expect that number to continue to increase. So we will be seeing fewer employees handling more civil rights issues. But it’s not just about complaints, Obama’s Civil Rights Office also issued 34 Dear Colleague Letters, which are policy documents advising districts and colleges on how to handle issues like which bathrooms transgender students should use or how to conduct campus sexual assault investigations. These policy documents really raised the ire of many conservatives. So I guess it’s not surprising we’re seeing cuts here.

Jackie: The $1.2 billion after-school cut is one that is sticking with me. I need to dig up the research, but I believe after-school is where a lot of students are introduced to STEM.

Meredith: Well, I’m having trouble. So I’ll give you three choices: 1) 300,000 fewer students would get work study grants 2) 1.5 million would lose need-based aid grants (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants) 3) Close to 30 million are getting subsidized Stafford loans, which means you don’t accrue interest until you can start paying them, and that would be zeroed out. What’s your vote?

Sarah: As people who were in the office yesterday can attest because I kept talking about it, the one that leaps out to me is the elimination of subsidized loans.  This had been previously reported on, but I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot more coverage of the loan forgiveness program and eliminating subsidized loans would impact many more people. If you take that away, college will become even more a financial strain for millions and millions of families than it already is.

Jackie: The work study is a huge concern, I agree Meredith. I relied on work study in college and still had to work a job off campus and outside of my work study job. I don’t know how I would have paid for rent, food, etc without having work study as an option.

Emmanuel: I think Sarah B. is right. The most eye popping cut was the elimination of subsidized loans, I mean that doesn’t really seem politically feasible to me. We’re really not great as a country at getting rid of middle class entitlements…

Meredith: I don’t actually get the loan cut — given there’s such a big debt crisis already.

Sarah: Right. And I don’t actually think it would go through. That perhaps is why it was so striking it was in the budget. Why propose it in the first place?

Meredith: My sense is that Trump is trying to move the starting line way back on many things.

Emmanuel: Shock and Awe!

Jackie: Yep, they’re trying to make a point

Meredith: Someone called it a “messaging document.”  I’m just not sure who he’s talking to.

Sarah: A lot of the justification for eliminating programs was that they could be supported by other federal, state and local funding (and in some cases they mention private funding.) What do we think of that argument?

Jackie: Eh

Sarah: Jackie, weighing in with a strong opinion. I like it.

Jackie: You’re welcome.

Meredith: He said that about postsecondary job training, but then cut the Labor Department by more than 20 percent, so I’m not sure that holds up everywhere.

Jackie: There’s no way state/local/private funding is going to make up these cuts.

Meredith: I saw a justification that the cuts are to programs that haven’t shown results, but that seems like a smokescreen, to be honest. Reporting and research shows that it’s rarely just one thing that gets in the way of a student not graduating, it’s usually a cascade of events, health crisis, child care crisis, job loss, etc… It’s difficult to get reliable data on just the child care piece or just providing health care, or a higher minimum wage. That’s not to say that programs that don’t work shouldn’t get axed, it’s just that what qualifies as “evidence” needs a little more examination.

Emmanuel: I mean this could be the DeVos doctrine, right? She’s a part of the education philanthropists club.

Jackie: At the same time, Meredith, they’re calling for more money for charters and vouchers, and isn’t research mixed there, too? On that note, I’d like to know how they’re defining “high-quality” schools. Did anyone see that in the budget?

Sarah: I love it when you guys do my job for me and handle transitions! I wanted to talk to about school choice next. We now finally have a glimpse for how school choice will be expanded under Trump. There are a few key pieces. There would be money given to charter schools, money dedicated to developing voucher programs and a pot of Title I money that would “follow the student.” What do you all think of those proposals? Is this an effective way to promote choice?

Emmanuel: This budget is kind of schizophrenic about research right? They propose cutting a bunch of programs because research shows they are ineffective, but at the same time they are setting money aside to “build evidence” that school choice works.

Jackie: Maybe in places where there are a lot of options. What about rural areas where there are only one or two schools? How do any of these options impact them?

And Emmanuel, you got it exactly right. 100 points to Gryffindor for Emmanuel.

Meredith: Research has shown that school choice leads to greater racial segregation, but that seems not to be of great concern.

Sarah: There’s also the issue of how much Washington can/will/should do to entice states to adopt these kinds of programs. In a speech on Monday, DeVos promised DC wouldn’t bribe states. But she also said: “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it. If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids. They’ll be the ones who will have to explain to constituent parents why they are denying their fundamental right to choose what type of education is best for their child.”

Emmanuel: I think every administration has said that it wanted local control, except in the areas they want to push, ie vouchers now.

Jackie: Ok, well again, I go back to rural areas. In rural Mississippi, for example, some kids already travel an hour by bus to get to the closest school. What other choice is there? Wouldn’t it be more helpful for those students to have funding to make the only “choice” better for them?

Meredith: Maybe Trump will let the rural kids use his private plane?

Jackie: That would be really nice of him.

Meredith: I actually didn’t fully understand how they were going to push school choice…they can’t be talking about building new schools can they? Or online schools?

Emmanuel: Well, they are setting aside money for charter construction. That’s tangible.

Sarah: The rest does seem to be giving opportunities to states to get more federal money by adopting certain policies. The exact thing the Obama Administration was heavily criticized for.

Emmanuel: Exactly!

Jackie: Aghhhh

Emmanuel: All federal authority looks like overreach until you’re in power.

Meredith: Exactly.

Jackie: Emmanuel is so smart.

Emmanuel: Aw thanks

Sarah: Alright. Last question. Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you think was particularly noteworthy?

Jackie: The Public Service Loan Forgiveness. I know you all have heard me freaking out about this all week since I’m part of it. Apparently it would be canceled but only apply to loans taken out in 2018 or later.

Meredith: I guess it struck me that some of the higher ed cuts go after programs that many people agree need reform — like how work study is allocated, for example. But the solution seems to be cutting it (work study by almost half) which doesn’t do much to fix it.

Emmanuel: I found it interesting that despite all the Common Core and testing pushback that the administration is level funding the state assessments program.

Sarah: Oh, I missed that one. That is fascinating!

Emmanuel: Honestly, the higher education budget seems a lot less ideological than the K-12 budget.

Meredith: Yes, higher ed is really just a very fiscally conservative budget.

Jackie: What about the child care program for college students?

“While the CCAMPIS program provides an important service that benefits low-income student parents, subsidizing expenses associated with child care is not consistent with the Department’s core mission.”

Meredith: I spoke to some student-parents who used CCAMPIS. The issue there is that they don’t actually qualify for other childcare programs — they are Pell eligible but not living in poverty, technically. So there won’t be anything for them.

Jackie: I’m wondering where this will go. Even some groups that support school choice have said they’re concerned about all the cuts.

Meredith: And Republicans who have supported Trump in the past, including Speaker Ryan, have made it clear that this is only a proposal, which many don’t support

Emmanuel: So the question is, what does he really get? I don’t think he’ll get the loan cuts he wants but maybe he wins over some in the Freedom Caucus? Who have been very skeptical about his conservative credentials.

Meredith: I agree, Emmanuel. I think he gets political points with certain groups. I’d really like to see how his voting base reacts, especially middle class and low-income families.

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