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When it comes to education, President Donald Trump’s “America First” budget flips the famous line from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” that people have adapted to use in business ever since: “If you build it, they will come.”
Trump’s philosophy seems to be, “If you break it, they will come to private and charter schools” — “it” in this scenario being the traditional public school system. The new president has made it clear that he will use drastic cuts — $9.2 billion worth of them to the Department to Education — to lessen the public sector’s hold on students, without offering viable alternatives.
With the release of his first budget, Trump seeks to cut federal education spending by 13 percent (that $9.2 billion figure), according to an initial analysis performed by The Washington Post. The reductions would pay for a $1.4 billion voucher expansion to help subsidize public school students who want to attend private schools. Included in these cuts are things like teacher training and afterschool programs, the savings from which would make room for a $168 million increase (a 50 percent hike) in charter school spending, which funds the start-up and expansion of charters.
Encouraging private and charter school attendance by reducing federal funding to traditional public schools and thus making them less desirable to attend doesn’t create opportunities for students. If “draining the swamp” includes traditional public schools, Trump has to replace them with proven upgrades — something that he and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have yet to put on the table.
Enough has been said about charter schools and voucher programs since DeVos’ nomination, including by me, so I’m not going to rehash those arguments here. But based on the preponderance of evidence, the best we can say about charters is that they work well under certain circumstances. On average, charter schools show similar outcomes to traditional schools. Vouchers — coupons that can be used toward tuition at a private school — on the other hand, have been shown to largely worsen student performance. Much of the decline in performance comes from students moving to worse private options. Consequently, private schools must be considered problems as much as they are solutions.
Average charters and lower-performing private schools that don’t improve upon traditional systems are merely disruptions that American families can’t afford.
If even a semblance of this budget passes, the education system it will leave behind promises to be a patchwork of incoherent policies that overall deliver on candidate Trump’s pledge to reduce the size of government and expand private school options, while leaving educational leaders without the direction or resources to support the most vulnerable families.
We’re used to changing political philosophies between presidents of different political persuasions. But this budget simply doesn’t make any sense. Take for instance Trump’s relationship with HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities.
Earlier this month, Trump signed an executive order to move the office of the Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education to the White House in order to provide a direct line of support to those schools. The HBCU presidents who attended the meeting associated with the signing were expecting increased funding, but the budget did not live up to their expectations — in fact, it cuts federal support.
That crucial surplus funding from the Pell Grant, which legislators from both sides of the aisle wanted to keep, helps underprivileged students who are taking more summer courses to graduate within six years. Pell Grants are usually more accessible during the spring and fall semesters; low-income black students tend to rely heavily on the Pell funding to take summer courses. This hurts HBCU students, nearly three-quarters of whom qualify for Pell Grant funds.
Trump’s budget even makes it tougher for students who might apply to an HBCU to get to college. His budget cuts hit federal programs such as GEAR-UP and TRIO, which offer outreach, education, support services and financial aid to low-income students to help them get into college.
Inexplicably, Trump’s budget calls for the elimination of 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which fund afterschool programs serving 1.6 million kids. In defense of the cuts, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said afterschool programs don’t “show results.” As if keeping children in structured programs and off the streets aren’t results.
These examples demonstrate the chaotic nature of his budget, which doesn’t outline any real priority except for increasing military spending by more than $50 billion. But the education-related parts of his budget seem to contradict even that, because education is also a matter of national security. When citizens (and resident non-citizens) are not educated, the country is made vulnerable to health risks, crime and violence. Budget decreases in education are contradictory to the reason why we need a military — to keep ourselves safe. When we don’t support educational programs for our youth, we simply internalize the threat.
The only logic Trump’s budget follows is across-the-board cuts, which lack internal consistency. It’s as if Trump said increase defense spending and make up for it by reducing everything else. This isn’t sensible or effective budgeting.
A budget that puts America first would first and foremost invest in the next generation of Americans.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.