Trump education block grant plan faces uphill slog in Senate

Trump budget proposal would streamline 29 federal programs into single $19.4B state block grant

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 5, 2020 at 2:02pm

Senate Republicans showed openness Thursday to a Trump administration proposal to streamline 29 federal education programs into a single $19.4 billion state block grant and other changes to federal policies, but a key GOP appropriator suggested those initiatives would still not make it into final fiscal 2021 appropriations language.

That outlook emerged at a hearing before the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made her second appearance on Capitol Hill to defend her department’s fiscal 2021 budget request. Similar to a hearing last week before a House Appropriations panel, Democrats on the Senate subcommittee were uniformly critical of the $66.6 billion proposal, which would reduce current funding by 7.8 percent.

“No matter how much money we spend, we don’t seem to be making the improvements we’d like to make,” said subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “I like the idea of looking at this in a bold and innovative way.”

Blunt indicated the committee was unlikely to shift primary and secondary education programs addressing school safety, STEM education and after-school education into a state block grant, and would almost certainly not cut TRIO programs or the federal work-study program.

“It’s not our job, frankly, to make these kinds of authorizing policy decisions,” he said. “We’re going to write the fiscal 2021 appropriations bill under current law.”

Several questions from Democrats focused on how the Education department is addressing the accelerating coronavirus outbreak. Ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., cited closing schools in her state — where 10 people have died from the virus, of 11 nationally — and asked what the department has done to coordinate with health officials.

“Parents, students and teachers need facts, they need to know what to do so they can respond effectively,” Murray said. “So I want to make certain today that you are doing everything you can to support school districts, colleges, teachers, other school staff and students during this time.”

DeVos said the department's working group, which is coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was in “regular, frequent, multiple times daily contact” and that guidance has been issued for schools managing the crisis.

Rural schools

Blunt also questioned DeVos about an Education department decision — reversed on Wednesday after bipartisan backlash — that would have suddenly changed the eligibility rules for the Rural Low-Income Schools Program and excluded more than 800 schools. A group of 22 senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a letter to the department on Wednesday urged the move be rescinded.

The department will allow the inclusion of those schools for an additional year, but DeVos urged senators to change the law.

“It is something that Congress is going to have to act upon in order to continue to comply with the law,” she said.

Other questions focused on the White House’s budget proposals to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and increase funds for career and technical education, and the skyrocketing costs of higher education.

DeVos repeated her suggestion, made frequently during last week’s contentious House Appropriations hearing, that state and local school districts are best positioned to determine what resources students need.

[DeVos, Democrats spar over block grants, charter schools]

“This proposal does not eliminate any program — it simply affords states the flexibility they need to enhance programs that work for their students,” she said. “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience.”

Congress has rejected similar Education Department proposed cuts from Trump the last three years, instead increasing the department's fiscal 2020 funding by $10.2 billion more than in the budget request.