Mixed Emotions on Trump’s Education Budget

On Tuesday, the Trump administration released its long-awaited budget proposal. I had a three-part reaction: it’s not that big a deal; the cuts are generally reasonable and some are even brave; but the budget as a whole is so problematic that I’ve no desire to defend it.

Given that pretty much everything had already leaked, there were few surprises. The budget calls for $3.6 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, leaves Medicare and Social Security untouched, and modestly boosts military spending. The blueprint promises to bring the federal budget into balance over the next decade, but relies on laughable revenue projections to get there. In 2018, the budget proposes $26.7 billion in program eliminations and $30.6 billion in spending reductions, with education accounting for an outsized chunk of that. The budget calls for $59 billion in 2018 spending at the Department of Education, a cut of $9.2 billion (or 13.5%) from the spending plan Congress adopted last month (for a detailed summary of the education budget, see here).

What to make of all this?

First, I’m surprised by the breathlessness with which the education media have responded to all this. For their part, the general media mostly gave the budget limited coverage, noting that even Hill Republicans were saying that it will bear little relation to what Congress ultimately does. But education outlets ran lots of anguished stories (such as here and here) in which advocates were given free rein to predict the dire consequences of a given cut. In such accounts, context or measured responses were in short supply.

Second, despite some of this hyperbolic coverage, it’s worth noting that the proposed K-12 cuts amount to perhaps one-tenth of what Washington spends each year, a figure which is about one-tenth of what the nation spends. That means, at most, the proposed cuts represent a one percent cut in K-12 spending. When it comes to higher education, the cuts are smaller still. Cuts of that size are real, but they also strike me as entirely reasonable. Keep in mind that Washington is borrowing $350 billion this year—and piling that atop a national debt that has now reached $20 trillion (a figure that increased fourfold in the Bush-Obama years). Unless we want to keep burying future generations deeper in our irresponsible debt, spending cuts and tax increases are essential. And I’m wholly on board with some of the specific cuts—such as eliminating Title II and zeroing out the ludicrously ill-conceived Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Third, this makes me want to mount a vocal defense of the proposed budget. Unfortunately, I can’t, because craven decisions elsewhere make the education cuts look capricious rather than principled. You see, I can’t get excited about a budget that aggressively cuts the relative pittance we spend on education while punting on hard choices regarding the massive entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare. I can’t get enthused for a budget that relies on fictionalized revenue projections to reach balance, even as it calls for massive tax cuts. I can’t defend a budget that so manifestly fails to offer a vision of shared sacrifice, while taking the axe to tiny programs like the Special Olympics and college work-study.

One reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to Trump here is the cavalier manner in which so many advocates approach federal education spending. Persistently absent is any acknowledgment of the ways in which out-of-control entitlements are burdening our kids and squeezing out spending on schools, colleges, and much more. When former Obama Secretary of Education John King laments that we’re having a “conversation about cuts rather than a conversation about investment,” I can only wonder what he said as the Obama administration was supersizing the Bush administration’s effort to max out the nation’s credit card. I’d find concerns about Trump’s cuts far more credible if I could recall a time when education advocates had conceded some programs weren’t working, voiced concerns about bureaucratic bloat, suggested cost-saving strategies, or acknowledged the burdens imposed by federal overspending. Absent any of that, the advocates’ endless cries of “Wolf!” sound just as unserious as the budget they’re criticizing.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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