Trump’s Education Budget Takes Aim at the Working Class

The president wants to cut funding for programs such as career and technical education and redirect that money toward school choice.

Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are seen laughing at a school-choice event in Washington, D.C.
Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a school-choice event in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Updated on May 23, 2017

Many of the spending goals outlined in Donald Trump’s proposed education budget reflect his campaign rhetoric. The president, who has long called for reducing the federal government’s role in schools and universities, wants to cut the Education Department’s funding by $9 billion, or 13 percent of the budget approved by Congress last month. The few areas that would see a boost pertain to school choice, an idea that Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly touted as a top priority. In the White House’s spending proposal, hundreds of millions of the dollars would go toward charter-school and voucher initiatives, while another $1 billion in grants would encourage states to adopt school-choice policies.

But other aspects of Trump’s funding plan fly in the face of his past statements on education, raising confusion about his priorities. He wants to cut state grants for career and technical education (CTE), for example, by $166 million, and nearly halve funding for the roughly $1 billion federal work-study program. Both CTE and work-study are education models that enjoy broad bipartisan support and are particularly palatable to Republicans and the white, working-class voters who clinched Trump’s election. Tellingly, there’s little consensus between Trump’s spending proposal and the bipartisan appropriations bill unveiled by Congress earlier this month.

Trump’s education budget, which was published Tuesday as part of full spending plan’s release, would eliminate more than two dozen programs. The budget “reflects a series of tough choices we have had to make when assessing the best use of taxpayer money,” DeVos said in a statement. “It ensures funding for programs with proven results for students while taking a hard look at programs that sound nice but simply haven’t yielded the desired outcomes.”

The final version reiterates many of the funding priorities outlined in the  “skinny”—i.e., preliminary—budget released in March, which had already made it clear that Trump wanted to get rid of the relatively small education programs that, in the eyes of the administration, lack the evidence and reach needed to prove they’re worthy of investment. The congressional deal struck at the beginning of this month to keep the government running into September, on the other hand, maintains level funding for many of the education programs Trump wants to do away with or trim down.

Tamara Hiler, a senior policy adviser at the centrist think tank Third Way, described the White House budget as “tone deaf,” pointing to the $1.3 billion program that provides grants to states for career and technical education as an example. “The fact that [Trump] would want to move money away from … career and technical education into something that is not even going to benefit many of his voters is befuddling,” she said, alluding to the limited access to school choice in the rural communities that helped secure the president’s victory.

Indeed, CTE dovetails neatly with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message, and with his campaign promise to prioritize workforce development and job creation in the United States. Take his priorities around infrastructure: CTE is helping to grow the workforce that’s key to making those goals a reality, from programs in design and engineering to those in construction and manufacturing. “These are the very elements of the rebuilding-America agenda,” said Kimberly Green, the director of the advocacy group Advance CTE, and “are the very things CTE programs help prepare people for successful careers in.” DeVos for her part emphasized the importance of CTE throughout her confirmation hearing—perhaps because it serves as an effective example of school choice.

Once known as vocational education, CTE today is often marketed as a practical, skills-focused path into the workforce for high-schoolers, particularly those who aren’t interested in the traditional college experience. Research on its impact is mixed, though recent studies suggest that program quality is improving—and that it’s a worthwhile option for students who are drawn to technical fields, including those who might otherwise be at risk for dropping out. A study published last year by the right-leaning Fordham Institute, for example, found that students in Arkansas who participated in a concentrated CTE program were more likely to graduate from high school than otherwise identical students who didn’t participate in such a program.

State grants for CTE were established as part of a 1984 law known as the Perkins Act, which was enacted in an effort to improve the quality of trade-focused education in the country. Today, the law helps states expand and enhance career and technical programs, supporting investments in things like professional development and facility updates; the grants also include strict accountability provisions aimed at ensuring quality. Last week—coincidentally the same day that The Washington Post first reported on a leaked version of Trump’s education budget—the House Education and the Workforce committee unanimously approved a bill seeking reauthorization of the law.

“In one sense it makes sense to me politically that the small-government arm of the Republican party would be focused on reducing overall federal expenditures, especially in places like education that are supposed to be reserved for the state,” said Shaun Dougherty, a CTE researcher and education-policy professor at the University of Connecticut who authored the Fordham Institute report. “On the other hand, they’ve talked up career and technical education as a way in which the marketplace can interface with public education to improve labor-market preparation as well as educational outcomes.”

While the proposed CTE-grant reductions are relatively small, amounting to 15 percent of current levels, advocates say they’d significantly undermine efforts to expand such opportunities despite ever-growing demand. In most states, according to Dougherty, Perkins grants account for the second-largest source of CTE funding. Congress’s spending deal, for its part, keeps funding for the grants at existing levels.

The federal work-study program resembles CTE in that it speaks to the Republican ethos that hard work is the key to prosperity, framing experiences focused on real-world skills development as just as educational as those focused on academic learning. “Honestly, work-study is one of the most Republican-friendly higher-ed spending programs we have,” Hiler said, “because you’re basically asking folks to work their way through college.”

According to Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of education and economics at Columbia who’s conducted extensive research on Federal Work-Study, it was created in the 1960s largely on the grounds that students would get help paying for college in exchange for providing their school labor. Congress didn’t cut any funding for federal work-study in its latest appropriations agreement.

At its current funding levels, the federal work-study program supports about one in every 10 full-time, first-year undergraduates—or 700,000 students total—annually, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. It subsidizes up to 75 percent of the wages eligible students receive working for on-campus jobs.

Although empirical evidence on the program’s outcomes is limited and imperfect, the findings outlined in the 2015 Columbia University study make a good case for continued funding. Students who participate are more likely than those who don’t to graduate and have a job after college, for example, and it provides needy students with a job that’s required to accommodate their academic needs—the employer even needs to sign an agreement acknowledging that academics come first, according to Scott-Clayton.

Interestingly, much of the criticism of the program has come from those on the left who say its distribution formula disproportionately favors the wealthy, something the administration highlighted in its rationale for reducing funding. The students who tend to reap its greatest academic benefits—those who attend public institutions, are poor, and would work regardless of whether they had access to the subsidies—are least likely to receive the aid. That’s in part because the funding formula bases a given college’s grant amount primarily on what the institution received in previous years rather than on proven need; in turn, it tends to favor established, expensive institutions.

A research brief Scott-Clayton co-published earlier this year found that a third of dependent undergraduates attending private, four-year institutions received work-study benefits, compared to just 2 percent of their peers at community colleges and 7 percent of those at public, four-year colleges. Some worry that, depending on how the budgeting is structured, the proposed cuts would skew the program even more toward institutions that serve small numbers of low-income students.

“It would be very sad to see the program get abandoned before there’s been a really serious effort both to address the distribution of funds across institutions and also to rethink how the program is designed,” Scott-Clayton said.

The proposed reductions to the work-study program echo a larger effort on the part of the White House to streamline and pare down federal financial aid, a realm that policymakers across the political spectrum agree is in need of simplification. But advocates argue that simply eliminating or drastically reducing certain programs could be devastating for current borrowers.

Scott-Clayton highlighted the proposal to eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness as particularly worrisome. As part of the program, which was enacted in 2007, college graduates who work for qualified nonprofit or government employers in fields such as social work and teaching are eligible for loan forgiveness after a decade; nearly 553,000 people are currently on track to have their loans forgiven, the first cohort of which would receive their benefits this year.

Among the myriad areas that would also face cuts: summer and after-school programs, efforts focused on teacher training and reducing class sizes, and arts education. Two of the department’s largest K-12 expenditures—Title I, which supports low-income children, and special education—would remain funded at existing levels, as would historically black colleges and universities. Trump’s plan also retains year-round Pell grants—an option that Congress, in what the Center for American Progress has described as “the biggest policy win for higher-education advocates on both sides of the aisle,” is restoring in its omnibus appropriations bill.

Ultimately, advocates of the programs Trump wants to trim acknowledge that the chances of the president getting his spending priorities realized are slim. Commenting on the skinny budget back in March, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, made a point of reminding the public that Congress is in charge of passing appropriations bills.

“It’s very clear that [Trump] has even less pull with the Republican caucus than he did even a few weeks ago,” Hiler said. “They ignored him then, and it seems like they would have no hesitancy in ignoring him now.”