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ANALYSIS: What the new federal education reform means for communities

A sweeping overhaul of federal education funding has been proposed that, according to the Trump administration, would return decision-making power to states, school boards and teachers. It also gives students more pathways to careers in a changing economy. While the plan has its critics, some leaders in education say reform is decades overdo.

The central theme of the makeover is that Washington has usurped too much power over the classroom and needs to step back.

The plan is just that – a plan – and as President Donald Trump has limited room for unilaterally dealing with many of the federal regulations, such as requirements for standardized testing, academic standards, and intervention in struggling schools, because those are mandated by law.

Currently, the federal government only pays about 7 percent of public education expenses. That’s a figure that has barely moved regardless of if a Democrat or Republican sits in the White House. Most funding for K-12 education in the country comes from property taxes, and in some cases, state-sanctioned gambling enterprises.

VIDEO: Education Secretary DeVoss talks about the budget

Released last week, the President’s 2021 education budget proposal promises greater flexibility for states and localities on how to use the federal money. It would roll almost 30 federal K-12 programs into one block grant allocated to states largely based on numbers of low-income students. This should simplify the grant process for the states and, in the future, allow the Department of Education to reduce staffing, the administration said (pdf).

“States will be free to focus on people, not paperwork. Results, not regulations,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a Feb. 10 release.

The block grant would total less than $20 billion, a reduction of nearly $4 billion from the total appropriated this year to all the programs it would replace. But that reduction would be made up by additional spending outside of the Education Department.  It would also provide up to $5 billion in additional education funding to help more than 1 million students across the country find their education fit. Add to that several hundred more dollars through various programs and schools would see an increase in spending per pupil.

But those numbers do not convince some legislators that want continued centralized control from Washington.  Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, criticized the funding cut in a Feb. 10 release, calling the block grant “inadequate.”

“President Trump’s budget proposal seeks to pay for the cost of his reckless tax cuts by raiding important investments that would improve the lives of people across the country,” he said in the release. Scott did not elaborate and avoided questions of why he was criticizing a budget that actually increased funding for education but not just through traditional means.

Scholarship Tax Credits

Trump’s proposal includes Education Freedom Scholarships (EFS), a program proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that would give up to $5 billion in federal tax credits dollar-for-dollar to taxpayers who donate to organizations that grant elementary and middle school scholarships in their state.

Trump has been a fan of the school choice movement, which supports alternatives to standard public schools, such as charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and homeschooling. The administration expects EFS to attract $5 billion in donations that would help over a million students “find their education fit.”

Each state would design their own rules for what the scholarships could pay for, including career and technical education (CTE), special education services, or private school tuition.

Some states already run similar programs, as Trump highlighted in his Feb. 4 State of the Union Address.

“For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools,” he said. “To rescue these students, 18 states have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on a waiting list.”

Trump urged Congress to pass Cruz’s federal education legislation, which has languished at the Senate’s Finance Committee since February last year.

Spokesman for the committee chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said “no committee action is scheduled” on Cruz’s bill.

“Chairman Grassley is looking for more member support before determining next steps,” the spokesman, Taylor Foy, told The Epoch Times via email.

The bill currently has 14 cosponsors, all Republicans.

It’s not likely the federal reform will pass the Democrat-controlled House. Teachers unions, a major political power block for the Democrats, oppose school choice. The National Education Association, the largest teachers union, has argued that tax credit vouchers harm public schools, because the fewer children go to public schools, the less money the schools receive from the government. “Districts cannot reduce their fixed costs — maintenance, utilities, debt service, transportation, etc. — in proportion to the number of students who leave,” it said in a policy brief (pdf), noting that “school districts must make do with less” in such situations or the schools may close down.

VIDEO: The budget: the good, the bad and the ugly

Career and Technical Education

While several previous administrations have mostly focused on increasing the share of Americans heading to college, Trump has put more emphasis on expanding vocational education, such as job training, apprenticeships, and CTE.

He proposes boosting federal CTE funding by $900 million to a total of around $2.1 billion. If approved, it would be the largest increase since at least 1980.

CTE usually offers high school classes focused on knowledge and skills from a particular industry.

About a quarter of high school students earned at least two CTE credits in one field of study in the school year 2017/2018, according to the Education Department.

Based on data from previous years, such students have a lower chance than their peers of getting a Bachelor’s or higher degree within eight years of graduation, but, on the other hand, have higher high school graduation rate as well as higher earnings and a chance of earning at least an undergraduate certificate within eight years.

The most common CTE fields are healthcare, arts, agriculture, business, science and technology, and information technology.

An increased CTE funding should help narrow the gap between the more than 6 million available jobs and the number of people qualified to fill them, easing shortages in the relatively tight labor market. The results, however, depend on how well the CTE programs connect with skill requirements of employers.

–EPTimes and wire services