Trump’s Education Budget: More Inequality, Less Access for Low-Income Students

Response to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education

By Lauren Walizer and Kisha Bird

The U.S. Department of Education (ED)’s FY 2018 budget proposal would cut billions of dollars from programs that help low-income students succeed in secondary and postsecondary education.  Meanwhile, school choice programs would receive dramatic increases.

Since the passage of landmark civil rights and anti-poverty laws, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Higher Education Act, the federal Department of Education has worked to ensure all students have access to quality education and equitable resources, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, gender, or ability.  Elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education are primarily funded by state, local, and private sources, but ED plays a critical role in enforcing civil rights, targeting resources to low-income students, and reducing opportunity gaps.

The Department’s budget would undermine this fundamental role, making deep cuts to financial aid programs that help low-income students access postsecondary education. Funding would be slashed by $5.2 billion, including $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant program. As more and more employers require education and training beyond high school, the employment landscape has become increasingly challenging for low-income students. They need postsecondary training but are increasingly less able to afford it.

In 2011-12, 57 percent of Black community college students received Pell grants; however, 82 percent had unmet financial need of $5,000 on average. Three-quarters of students from Asian, Hispanic, and Native populations also had remaining unmet need. With this budget, ED would dig a deeper hole for financially vulnerable students and subvert its responsibility to provide access to opportunity.

The $3.9 billion Pell cut was only made possible by harmful eligibility reductions passed in 2012. The budget would compound this mistake by eliminating Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) ($733 million), which overwhelmingly supports Pell Grant recipients, and cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Work-Study (from $989 million to $500 million). ED claims that SEOG is not “well targeted”; however, this conflicts with the budget’s proposed reform to update the formula through which Work-Study is awarded, considering they use the same formula to distribute aid.

The budget would eliminate or drastically reduce investments that provide services to youth as well as prepare low-income students for postsecondary education.  That includes eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. 21CCLC provides critical before-school, after-school, and summer programs for low-income children and youth. This would undercut more than one million children and their parents. The Trump Administration has claimed the program is not effective; however, there is strong evidence that quality afterschool programs help children and youth become more engaged in school, raise their academic performance, and remain safe during non-school hours. The budget would also reduce Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergrad Programs (GEAR UP) by more than a third and federal TRIO funding by 15 percent. These are critical programs that help prepare low-income youth and nontraditional students for postsecondary education and provide services to help them succeed.

The budget’s increased investments in school choice programs ignore the systemic issues facing America’s public schools. It calls for an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs, including $1 billion for Title I, $250 million for a new private school choice program, and $168 million for charter schools. The title I funding is designed to support increased school choice options by encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment.

ED’s budget proposal claims it will “place power in the hands of parents and families” by investing more in school choice programs.  However, these policies would help only a select group of students— leaving out the vast majority of low-income students who attend title I schools. Moreover, the budget would rip away postsecondary opportunities by eliminating funding that already falls short of meeting low-income students’ needs.  Families and students should not have to choose between having a safe place to learn afterschool and in the summer, a quality education, or whether they will be able to access and complete postsecondary education without crushing student loan debt.

CLASP urges Congress to reject this budget to prevent increased inequality and social immobility for low-income students.