Connelly: Sec. DeVos would cut public education, promote charter schools, vouches

May 18, 2017 Issues: Education

Seattle PI: Connelly: Sec. DeVos would cut public education, promote charter schools, vouches

  • Joel Connelly

The U.S. Department of Education plans to slash a range of public education programs, from public service loan forgiveness to Special Olympics education programs, according to near-final budget documents.

The documents, first reported by the Washington Post, show part of the savings would go to pet programs of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, expanding vouchers and charter schools for private and religious schools, and pushing public schools to choice-friendly policies.

The cuts, totaling $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, faced immediate withering criticism.

"President Trump and Secretary DeVos' budget confirms their extreme ideological commitment to public school privatization will come at the expense of millions of students around the country, from preschool to college and beyond," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the Senate. Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee (HELP).

The budget targets after school programs, cut in half money for the federal work-study program, slash grants focusing on career and technical programs, and cut nearly $100 million from adult basic literacy instruction.

Zak Meyer, 21, a Western Washington University student -- and a wheelchair athlete -- said of the proposed cuts:  "You are taking people already at fringes of society and pushing them farther away."

Such programs as special Olympics "give kids an identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of themselves," Meyer added.  "It's an outlet you often don't get in normal lives.  You see other people in wheelchairs.  You don't get the opportunity to connect.  Programs that connect are very, very important."

The budget proposes to eliminate entirely the public service loan forgiveness program, designed to provide incentive for and benefit people who go to work in rural areas at public service jobs such as doctors, teachers, social workers and public defenders.

Programs helping Alaska Native children are targeted, as is a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college, arts and foreign language programs, and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who chairs the HELP Committee, noted in March that the President proposes a budget but "under the Constitution , Congress passes appropriations bills."

"In my role on the House Budget Committee, I will do everything possible to stop this proposal, which would jeopardize resources for the students and schools that need them most," said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.

Two House members from Washington will be in a position to deflect the DeVos budget axe.

Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., sit on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls federal purse strings.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Murray is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., whose district includes the Olympic Peninsula, is on the House appropriations panel.

"I am the son of two school teachers and went to Port Angeles High," Kilmer said Thursday.  "For millions of young people in America, public education is the door to opportunity.  If this Administration wants to pull public dollars away from public schools, it will hide the key to that door."

Where would the money "saved" go?

Overall, the DeVos budget would mean a net $9.2 billion reduction to Department of Education Spending, or 13.6 percent of spending levels Congress approved for the current fiscal year.

Much of the money cut from public school programs -- such as money that serves 1.6 million students in after-school programs -- would go to underwrite school choice.

Charter schools would get $500 million, and DeVos wants to spend $250 million on "Education Innovation and Research Grants," to promote use of vouchers in religious and private schools.  Only one federally paid for voucher program now exists, in the District of Columbia.

According to budget documents leaked to the Post, the administration would take $1 billion in Title I dollars -- meant for low-income children -- and funnel it to a new grant program called FOCUS -- for Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success.

"The budget would weaken communities by eliminating funding for after school programs, grant aid for struggling college students and teacher and principal training programs," said Murray, "and so much more -- even Special Olympics education programs."

FOCUS would focus money on school districts which agree to give students a choice of which public school to attend, and to take their federal, state and local government education dollars with them.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., argued that the shift of resources will come at the expense of students in his northwest Washington district.

"By putting public education on the chopping block, especially programs targeted for low-income students, the Trump administration is standing between young people in my district and the skills and training they need to access jobs in the future," said Larsen.

As well, some are arguing that the Department of Education cuts run contrary to Trump administration goals.  An example is the Trump-DeVos proposal to axe a professional development program for teachers and principals called "Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants."

"Investing in talent to improve outcomes should appeal to the president, the bottom-line businessman: Failing to invest is not smart business, nor is it smart policy," Deborah Deliste, head of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, wrote this week.

"All our students deserve an education that allows them to reach their potential, and our educators must be equipped to provide it."

The proposed budget is notably generous to the Department of Education itself.

It asks for an additional $158 million for salaries and costs at the USDOE, a seven percent increase, the money to go for loan-servicing costs, information-technology security, and additional security costs for DeVos.

DeVos, a billionaire Republican mega-donor from Michigan, is being protected by U.S. Marshals rather than the in-house security detail that protected her predecessors.