What’s in a Name: A “Skinny Budget” Indeed

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 30, 2017

Every year the president’s proposed budget is pronounced D.O.A. in Congress even before it leaves the White House. It still garners attention for what it may say about the administration’s policy priorities. About two weeks ago, the Trump Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued its first “skinny budget,” a sort of broad-brush preview, which is entitled—what else?—“America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” (see here and here and here for a sample of initial reporting).

The very real bottom line for the Department of Education (DOE) is a $9.2 billion (or 13.5%) cut from $68.2 to $59.0 billion. But what does the accompanying budgetary “detail,” taken at face value, tell us about what the Department of Education might be up to in the coming months and years?

 “Skinny” in More Ways than One

The Trump skinny budget seems thinner than usual, both literally and metaphorically. It has fewer than 55 pages with any substance, and the DOE is allotted less than a page and a half. That portion of the text consists of a brief introductory statement, followed by ten bullet points which discuss funding changes to thirteen specific programs and identify five as examples from from a group of twenty proposed for elimination. Many programs are not mentioned at all.[1]

Metaphorically skinny as well, the education budget document gives virtually no rationale for its funding proposals.  There is introductory boilerplate about “reducing or eliminating funding for programs that are not effective, that duplicate other efforts, or that do not serve national needs,” followed by sporadic characterizations of spending as, for example, “poorly targeted and spread thinly … without scant evidence of impact.” It is difficult to know who contributed to the document or what research or evidence was relied on to produce it. Does it reflect any rhyme or reason?

Mostly Unfocused, But For One Big Thing

Let’s compare each of the four introductory foci for DOE spending to the bulleted funding proposals:

  1. According to the budget, the DOE “would refocus its mission on supporting States and school districts in their efforts to provide high quality education to all our students.” While spending is not the only way the DOE contributes to this objective, the large overall cut coupled with the specific funding proposals are far more likely to impede rather than advance it. The single largest reduction (third bullet) is the elimination of $2.4 billion in Title II funding for state and local teacher preparation, professional development and other teacher quality efforts. The last bullet involves a proposal to reduce or eliminate “over 20 categorical programs,” including targeted aid to states and districts. The remaining funding priorities, even the proposed increases, will likely have an adverse effect on most state and local budgets.
  1. The DOE would also “focus on streamlining and simplifying funding for college, while continuing to help make college education more affordable.” One-half (five) of the bulleted proposals concern reductions in funding related to higher education. The budget asserts that Pell Grants will be left “on sound footing for the next decade,” and that historically Black and minority-serving institutions support would be protected. However, most of the news is more cuts, including the elimination of the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program ($732 million), significant reductions in federal work-study aid, and reductions in college prep programs.
  1. The big, headline-grabbing goal of the budget is to place “power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs.” Under the first bulleted proposal, the new “investment” would comprise a “$168 million increase for charter school funding, $250 million for a new private school choice program, and a $1 billion increase for Title I… .” [2] Although Congress rejected a proposal to allow Title I portability when the ESSA passed in 2015 (as Green & Write explained here), the skinny budget says that new money would be “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice” (emphasis supplied). One billion dollars would constitute a “down payment” on a promised ramp up to a school choice spending level of $20 billion. (All Title I funding in FY 2017 will total about $15 billion.) How such extraordinary funding levels and a resurrected portability program can be justified, let alone implemented, are details left wholly unexplained.
  1. Finally, three bulleted points address continuing “support for the Nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities.” Funding of $13 billion for IDEA programs would be maintained. (Smaller but significant programs affecting disabled students go unmentioned.) Other proposals would nonetheless gut programs designed to assist poor and at-risk populations—for example, the elimination of $1.2 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, which provide before- and after-school, as well as summer, programs for disadvantaged children.

Overall, then, it seems that, with the exception of school choice, the skinny budget spending proposals are inconsistent with its own purposes. This suggests that the administration’s position is woefully slapdash at best and mindlessly ideological at worse. Still, the single-minded drive for costly and nebulously effective choice programs at the expense of nearly everything else hardly seems shocking given the well-known sentiments of the President and Secretary.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

[1]One notable education-related example is Head Start, which the Department of Health and Human Services administers, and which the skinny budget does not mention in that part of the document.

[2]As explained here, the net increase in Title I funding would be closer to $500 million because the ESSA has already shifted money from eliminated school improvement grants to Title I.

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.