Government & Politics

Will School Choice Be Mired in the Swamp?

An early report on Trump's education budget has the leftist education-media complex in a tizzy about "disastrous cuts."

Michael Swartz · May 19, 2017

It’s not official until next week, but The Washington Post revealed that Donald Trump’s first education budget contains, as they put it, “Deep cuts to public school programs in pursuit of school choice.” As if colluding with Russia weren’t bad enough, Trump wants your kids’ education to suffer, and the intrepid reporters at the tabloid Post are on the case.

Considering the Post’s new transparently anti-Trump slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” it’s amazing how little light they shed on the issue between this story and a companion piece on higher education finance.

One obvious point the Post glosses over is the target audience they’re seeking to reach — not the reader, but the members of Congress and their staffers who put together the federal budget. For one thing, this budgetary trick is not a zero-sum game of strictly cutting dollars from other areas and giving them to school choice programs. In fact, the increased spending on the pale pastel version of school choice predominantly featured in the Trump education budget, where students are allowed to choose only from public schools, is just $1 billion, less than 10% of the overall $10.6 billion group of cuts. A remaining $418 million is split between a $168 million increase for charter schools and $250 million for “a new private school choice program,” according to the Trump education budget blueprint. Certainly this is a start, but in the terms of a projected Department of Education budget of $59 billion, the amount of money spent on non-public schools is a drop in the bucket.

As was predicted to be the case when Betsy DeVos was tapped for the job of secretary of education, the perspective of an outsider would mean that a number of formerly sacred cows would become eligible for the chopping block. Dismantling what we’ve variously described as an “utterly corrupt educational status quo” or a “government behemoth” wasn’t going to be done with the seal of approval of the teachers unions (National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) or Department of Education bureaucracy, but President Trump and Secretary DeVos were dead set on making it happen anyway. And to the Left, even with a reformer running the show, just having a federal Department of Education is better than the long-cherished cherished conservative dream of eliminating it entirely, as Rep. Thomas Massie has proposed.

Yet the Swamp has a last line of defense, as pointed out earlier. It’s a sure bet that those teachers will be spending a little bit of their summer vacation burning up the phone lines and filling up the email boxes of their congressional representatives with demands to negate these “draconian” cuts — which overall amount to about 13.6% of the department’s budget. Thus it’s probable that most of the money will be restored as Congress negotiates over the summer. Most likely, the budget will end up in the range of about $55-57 billion, which is a slight reduction in spending. Those cuts will likely come from eliminating the school choice money and a few other items, in order to allow Congress to claim victory over deficit spending without having to make the toughest choices.

At an education technology conference in Salt Lake City earlier this month, DeVos remarked, “Washington has been in the driver’s seat [of American education] for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.” Naturally, that comes from the perspective of an outsider. However, if you’ve managed to carve out a nice little living for yourself based on the largesse of a cushy government job, from union dues coerced from the rank-and-file, or as a lobbyist who pines for even more educational decision-making inside the Beltway, you probably have no desire to see a sweet gig go by the wayside. When it comes to education, those are the swamp critters to watch out for, and budget time is when they’re most dangerous.

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