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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

Trump Administration to Raid Public Ed to Fund School Choice Programs

With key K-12 and higher ed programs on the chopping block, education advocate Diane Ravitch declares: "Don't agonize. Organize."

Deirdre Fulton

The Trump administration is preparing to unveil a sweeping school choice plan that would be prioritized at the expense of student aid and debt relief as well as public education programs that help low-income children, according to news reports. 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a wealthy philanthropist who lobbied for voucher programs and charter schools before being tapped to lead the nation's K-12 and higher education systems, will reportedly announce the school choice proposal Monday at an Indianapolis summit hosted by the conservative group she formerly chaired, the American Federation for Children. 

According to Politico, which cited multiple anonymous sources, DeVos "is believed to be preparing to unveil an education tax credit scholarship proposal, which the Trump administration has been considering for some time."

"What DeVos is expected to outline," the outlet reported, "could look different than a bill pushed by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana. If passed by Congress, the proposal could channel billions of public dollars to working class families to help them pay for private schools, including religious schools."

As for where those billions would come from, Politico adds:

A federal plan could award tax credits to individuals, corporations, or both, in exchange for their donations to those organizations. It could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate. That said, it's unclear how the Trump administration's ability to accomplish tax reform—or other policy priorities, for that matter—may be affected by the scandals engulfing the White House.

More money could come from implementing devastating cuts to other federal education programs. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the budget proposal President Donald Trump is expected to unroll next week includes $1.4 billion for school choice programs, while it slashes in other areas. 

All told, Trump's budget would cut about $9.2 billion, or 13.6 percent, from the Education Department. Some programs would be eliminated entirely. 

"Gone, for example, would be $1.2 billion for after-school programs that serve 1.6 million children, most of whom are poor, and $2.1 billion for teacher training and class-size reduction," the Post reports. 

Also on the chopping block, according to the document seen by the Post:

  • a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college;
  • a $27 million arts education program;
  • two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million;
  • two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million;
  • a $12 million program for gifted students; and
  • $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Education Week further reports that the budget proposal "would also entirely eliminate funding for a block grant intended to help programs providing well-rounded education to students and cover things like health and education technology." 

Ally Bernstein, a spokeswoman for a coalition of organizations pushing for funding for that grant, told Education Week: "If these leaked details of the administration's [budget proposal] are accurate, they demonstrate clearly that school choice is the administration's sole vision for K-12 education."

Advocacy group Education Votes was urging constituents to call their lawmakers to protest the proposed cuts:

Also revealed in the Post's reporting are sharp cuts to student aid, work-study, and debt relief programs: "The spending proposal would maintain funding for Pell Grants for students in financial need, but it would eliminate more than $700 million in Perkins loans for disadvantaged students; nearly halve the work-study program that helps students work their way through school, cutting $490 million; take a first step toward ending subsidized loans, for which the government pays interest while the borrower is in school; and end loan forgiveness for public servants."

Jordan Weissmann reported for Slate

Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which the administration's budget would reportedly kill off, student borrowers can currently have their debts erased if they spend 10 years working for a government or nonprofit employer. The program was created in 2007 in order to encourage more Americans to go into public service, but has become more controversial as some have criticized it as a back-door subsidy for expensive graduate degrees—the people who have signed up for so far tend to have high loan balances more typical of someone who went on to get a master's or a J.D. rather than a mere bachelor's. In 2015, the Obama administration proposed capping the amount of debt that could be forgiven at the federal loan limit for undergraduates, or $57,500. But Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos would go a step further by eliminating it entirely. As the Post notes, it is unclear what that would mean for borrowers currently working their way toward forgiveness.

The White House also reportedly wants to make some major changes to the Department of Education's income-based repayment options, which cap monthly payments as a percentage of a borrower's income. The tweaks would essentially help undergraduate borrowers at the expense of graduate students.

Under the current version of income-based repayment, borrowers are expected to pay 10 percent of their disposable income toward their loan balance, which is forgiven after 20 years for people who borrowed for a bachelor's degree, or 25 years for those who borrowed for an advanced degree. Under Trump's plan, borrowers would pay 12.5 percent of their income for 15 years if they borrowed for undergrad or for 30 years if they borrowed for grad school.

That's why, as Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told the Post for a separate story: "For grad students, this is a lousy deal. Thirty years is like a mortgage."

Responding to this week's reporting, public education advocate and historian Diane Ravitch advised her readers: "Don't agonize. Organize."

"Be active in the fight against these cuts," Ravitch wrote Thursday. "Be active in the resistance to privatization and the Trump administration's indifference/hostility to public schools."

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