Education

Betsy DeVos’s ‘Life-Shattering’ Education Budget

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her budget proposal on Tuesday — and the cuts are $9.2 billion deep.

The plan, whose fate ultimately rests in the hands of Congress, sticks to the campaign promises of President Donald Trump, cutting the department’s spending by 13 percent by eliminating or reducing more than thirty programs the department says are redundant or ineffective. Among those on the chopping block are teacher preparation and professional development, after-school programs, student financial aid services, funding for gifted and talented education, Special Olympics education, child care funding for student parents, American history and civics education, and funding for arts education.

The New York State Board of Regents education commissioner MaryEllen Elia and chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement that “the severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.” In their estimate, New York State stands to lose nearly $285 million in funding, including for homeless youth, English language learners, special education, and community schools in New York City, a program city officials announced an expansion of two weeks ago.

Education department officials said the cuts are designed to help bolster only “programs proven to drive successful outcomes” while “continuing support for the most vulnerable students.”

DeVos is a champion of controversial school choice initiatives — namely charter schools and vouchers that allow public dollars to be used for private (including religious) school tuition and other education expenses. Her budget reflects these priorities: It calls for a $1 billion infusion of cash to the existing Title I program that would be directed to the new Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) grant program. It would send money to districts who volunteer to abolish zoned schools, opening enrollment to any student regardless of where they live. Open enrollment already exists in New York City, where a complicated admissions process lets students apply to the school of their choice, anywhere in the city. (FOCUS also requires that funding from the grant follows the student from school to school). 

The program essentially creates a fiscal incentive for states to adopt school choice policies, one that is not dissimilar to the approach the Obama administration took in an attempt to encourage states to voluntarily adopt the Common Core State Standards eight years ago, a move that was largely derided as federal overreach. DeVos, in a recent speech to the American Federation for Children, a powerful school choice lobbying and advocacy firm she used to lead, said that “we won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money,” even as her budget attempts to do exactly that.

While school choice supporters have cheered on the administration’s move, other areas of the budget contradict the idea that the department is one concerned solely with the success of the most needy students across the country. The budget makes what education officials said are tough choices: It cuts $166 million from career and technical education, an educational option crucial for the working-class communities in rural areas across the country whose votes ushered President Trump into office. And among the thirteen eliminated funding streams are pools of money dedicated to Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, academically underperforming groups who are owed special attention by a government that has historically been complicit in the neglect of their communities and education.

The budget also asks for $370 million for the Education Research and Innovation program, a $250 million increase from 2016 levels, to be used for competitive scholarships that will allow students to attend private (both secular and religious) schools. Recent research on private school vouchers, which are politically volatile in some states, has found them to be unsuccessful in improving the academic achievement of the low-income students they purport to benefit, including federally funded vouchers in Washington, D.C. Charter schools would see a $167 million increase for new schools and facilities compared to current spending.

Even as the administration attempts to sell choice as the preeminent value in K-12 education, the budget proposal seeks to eliminate choices for students once they get to college. College tuition continues to rise, and students today are saddled with more debt than any other generation before them. Yet the budget proposal would see the eradication or scaling back of a few crucial programs that help students pay for college and manage their loan repayments after graduation.

Trump’s budget would eliminate all federally subsidized student loans, which means students would have to pay interest on their loans even while they’re in school. And it eliminates funding for Perkins loans for disadvantaged students, even as Congress recently approved a bill reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

The most egregious elimination is the loss of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, which forgives the loans of public servants after 10 consecutive years of payments (plus, loans forgivable under PSLF are not taxable by the IRS). The program’s first participants are set to see their loans forgiven this year. Though estimates say as much as 25 percent of the American workforce could be eligible for the program, only about 550,000 borrowers are currently enrolled, according to Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis.

“I fear we’re discouraging people from going into public service. It’s going to cost borrowers and parents more money while student loan companies and millionaires get richer,” said Abrams. “This just feels cruel.”

The budget would also streamline the five currently offered Income-Based Repayment options — which caps monthly payments at 10 percent of a borrower’s income and offers forgiveness after 20 years for undergraduate loans and 25 years for most graduate loans — into a single option. The new plan would raise the monthly payment to 12.5 percent across the board, a change Abrams says may cause some borrowers to pay more under income-based repayment than is required by the standard, 10-year repayment plan. The new plan would also reduce the repayment term to 15 years for undergraduates, while adding 5 years for graduate students, requiring 30 years of payments. Married couples would no longer be able to apply for income-based repayment separately; the new plan would consider both spouses’ incomes.

“It’s a really bad deal for graduate students. I don’t see a reason to differentiate between undergraduate and graduate students,” said Abrams. “A student is a student.”

And while Abrams’s organization has in the past advocated for streamlining income-based repayment options, she questions the way the Trump administration is addressing it. “I don’t think this is the answer,” she said.

The romanticized concept of working your way through college has long been a darling of Republicans, who condescend to millennials wading through tuition payments tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than those of their parents and grandparents. Yet the budget proposal would nearly halve funding for federal work study programs that help both undergraduate and graduate students do exactly that.

All of these changes would impact new borrowers, beginning July 1, 2018 — so anyone currently enrolled in income-based repayment or working toward public service loan forgiveness is not affected. But there is one major exception: If you’re a recent graduate headed to medical, law, or any other advanced degree program this year, PSLF and the multiple income-based loan repayment options are off limits for you too.

Abrams suggests that anyone working in an eligible PSLF job register with the program immediately. Applications are sometimes denied and must be contested — it’s better to do this sooner rather than later. And for those on an income-based repayment plan, qualified borrowers should consider switching to the Pay As You Earn plan, the most generous one. It offers low monthly payments (though this means you’ll pay back more than you borrowed), forgiveness after 20 years (the amount forgiven will be considered taxable as income by the IRS), and subsidized interest payments for anyone whose monthly payments don’t cover the interest on their loan.

“For now, the biggest thing to remember is that this is a proposal. Enroll, enroll, enroll. Send messages to members of Congress. This is where we have to scream at the top of our lungs that this will not stand,” said Abrams.

Read the full budget proposal here, and read the congressional budget justifications here.