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How to downsize the federal education role — without attracting attention

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Last week, the White House released its 2021 budget proposal, which called for an 8 percent cut in federal education spending. Even though smaller than last year’s proposed 10 percent cut, this proposal is likely to meet the same dead-end fate in a divided congress that ended up increasing federal education spending for 2020. However, with this proposal the administration shows a deft strategy for trimming spending in a more politically palatable way.

In previous years, the White House budgets have attempted to limit spending by eliminating programs. Last year, they aimed to zero out 29 programs, including popular ones funding afterschool learning, comprehensive literacy development, and improved teacher quality. By establishing specific programs for elimination, those efforts predictably met with focused outcry: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) declared the budget “dead on arrival,” while the Center for American Progress pronounced the cuts “draconian.”

This time around, the administration wants to combine 29 programs (not the exact same 29) into a single block grant for states, rather than cutting them outright. The proposed block grant would include $19.4 billion for states for programs that totaled $24.1 billion last year.

These clever tweaks make this year’s proposal much less likely to provoke controversy. On the one hand, no single program is getting cut (unlike in last year’s budget proposal). At the same time, Department of Education spending would be reduced by about 20 percent, which would appeal to fiscally conservative voters. And there’s a lot to like about block grants in general, which don’t lock states into spending particular sums on particular programs that D.C. politicians want, but give state and local leaders control over where to spend that money.

At the same time, by spreading spending cuts over a broad set of programs, this budget masks the extent of the proposed cuts. The proposed $19.4 billion block grant includes Title I grants to local education agencies. Of course, Title I is the primary way the federal government supports high-poverty schools, and for both political and practical reasons the program is seldom cut, and was held steady in each of the three previous Trump budget proposals.

If you hold Title I spending constant at $16 billion, the other 28 grant programs rolled into the new block grant would share about $3 billion in funding compared to their current total of $8 billion. In other words, outside of Title I, the Department of Education budget would slash funding for the remaining 28 K–12 grant programs by 60 percent.

Now, that observation is not necessarily a criticism. On the contrary: There’s good reason to think that some federal education spending is ineffective and over regulated — and that state and local governments know better than D.C. politicos how to deploy federal funds in an effective and coherent package.

Instead, this observation highlights how the Department has found a creative way to reduce spending while avoiding much of the criticism that often accompanies education spending cuts. After all, Education Week’s main write-up on the proposal didn’t do the math to point out this bundling is effectively a 60 percent funding cut that targets the same programs as before. Neither did articles from the Associated Press or Inside Higher Ed.

And to its credit, the administration’s proposal shows consistency in giving state and local leaders maximum flexibility in deciding how funds are used — even if those decisions may be at odds with the administration’s longstanding priorities. Federal funds for charter schools, long an administration priority, were rolled into the block grant along with programs the administration has routinely sought to cut. In other words, when it comes to school spending decisions, the administration is deferring to what local governments think is best. That practice is a hallmark of conservative governance.

Now, reasonable people can disagree how much deferral to local government is wise. Reasonable people can also disagree how much (or even if) Department of Education spending should be cut. But what’s clear is that the Department of Education is getting more sophisticated in pushing for a slimmed down federal role in education, in a way that’s consistent with conservative principles. And that’s worthy of notice.

Nat Malkus is the deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. RJ Martin is a research associate at AEI.

Tags Block grant budget cuts Education budget Patty Murray Title I U.S. Department of Education

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