President Trump has become the first president to incorporate into his budget one of the few good federal education policy ideas: Sending Americans’ money back to their states to decide how to use it.
Federal education programs have wasted trillions, enriching contractors and bureaucrats who lobby for open taps while arm-twisting Americans into trusting them with their dollars and children against all evidence that trust is deserved. Even federal evaluations have repeatedly found that federal education programs are ineffective. The conclusion of a century of increasing federal involvement in education is unequivocally that if you want something in education, the worst thing you can do is task the federal government with it.
That’s why it’s such a good idea to get the money back closer to the kids, where it belongs. The Trump administration’s aspirational 2020-21 budget proposal would block grant a substantial portion of K-12 dollars back to states. It’s an excellent first step towards eliminating federal meddling in local schools altogether, which President Trump has repeatedly said needs to happen. It would also be the only such step Congress has ever made, and thus their best move on education in a century.
“Many of the state and local leaders we’ve spoken with are excited by the possibilities the K-12 block grant presents,” said U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito. The biggest thing wrong with the administration’s proposal, in fact, is that they didn’t apply this revolutionary concept to all federal education spending. The budget’s other portions lead towards an expanded federal role in special education and private education, as well as doing little truly meaningful about the national disaster that is the American college and university scene.
Get With the Program, Congress
The block-grant idea has been around for several years, brought up several times in Congress as the A-PLUS Act. President Trump’s use of it in his budget is a bold call to congressional Republicans to not squander their next opportunity like they did in his first two years of office, passing the placeholder Every Student Succeeds Act rehash of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind.
If Republicans ever regain a majority, A-PLUS needs to be a first 100 days, must-pass priority. American kids and schools have suffered too long at the hands of funding formulas and earmarks that serve lobbyists, teachers unions, and public school administrators instead of the American people. They have suffered too long from an education system in which every dollar is controlled by the ten cents DC contributes using borrowed funds. This is the arrangement that gave us Race to the Top, transgender school bathrooms, and Common Core, and this Trojan Horse needs to be burnt to the ground so it can never be used again.
Some who represent the broken 1990s “education reform” consensus that brought us No Child Left Behind and Common Core have complained that giving states their own citizens’ money back would eliminate pet programs, such as charter school set-asides. This is completely missing the point. With block grants states would be free to distribute their own residents’ money as local voters see fit, and most would use it for charter schools, vouchers, and other market-based ideas — because most already are.
School choice, including charters, is highly popular with voters, especially the minority voters both Republicans and Democrats need to win tight races. Research shows charter and private schools are more academically effective than conventional public schools. They don’t need bureaucracy’s weight to support themselves.
Plus, block-granting would mean a higher percentage of education dollars can get into classrooms instead of being sucked off along the way by people paid to produce paperwork rather than teach children. This means a more efficient and child-focused education system. It also means less taxpayer money and power for the kind of people who use government posts to undermine what half the nation wants from education and votes for in elections.
More Money for Programs With Shameful Track Records
That’s the grand-slam idea in Trump’s budget. The other proposals, however, lack the clarity and vision of the block-grant idea for K-12. For example, the administration would spend $100 million more on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While obviously every decent American shares the goal of providing excellent opportunities, therapies, and education to fellow citizens with special needs, IDEA has not proven it merits taxpayer funding despite existing for more than 50 years.
The Office of Management and Budget has noted that IDEA has undergone in that entire time “no independent evaluation to provide information on the relationship between outcomes for children with disabilities and the program.” Scholar Vicki Alger writes that despite decades of attempts to tighten IDEA oversight, “the result has been weak enforcement, burdensome and costly regulations, few incentives for improvement, and perverse financial incentives to overidentify students with learning disabilities.”
Independent researchers have found, in fact, that school choice for children with disabilities generates much better outcomes with much less taxpayer spending. USDOE should just let states take charge and stop wasting Americans’ money while standing in the way of better solutions.
The Trump administration would also “dramatically increase funding for Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs by $900 million,” according to an administration fact sheet. Again, this is a great thing in theory, but the federal government’s record proves it doesn’t deserve more money and programs. So far, it has badly mismanaged them: “taxpayers have been funding these sorts of programs since the 1960s, yet federal auditors still aren’t sure whether or not they actually work,” note researchers Chris Edwards and Daniel J. Murphy.
The Government Accountability Office noted in 2019 that the federal government manages 43 employment and training programs and that nearly all of them overlap. GAO also found that the U.S. Department of Labor still doesn’t evaluate whether these programs work or have any plan to fix when they duplicate each other, despite a similar GAO report nine years ago. So why does it make any sense to add another, or to boost one, when we still have no proof any of these programs actually help people?
It doesn’t. It’s just election pandering using deficit spending, and that should be beneath a consistently conservative administration’s dignity. There are plenty of useful things the Trump administration can and has been doing with its power. It doesn’t need to do wasteful things instead, much less make them major prongs of its education policy.
Don’t Make Ronald Reagan’s Mistake Again
That worrisome and counterproductive “if it’s a good thing, the federal government should do it” instinct that is endemic in education also fuels the other Trump idea: a federal school choice program. The administration would create a $5 billion tax credit for donations from individuals and businesses to private school scholarships.
However. The absolute best way that President Trump, or anyone else, can promote school choice at the national level is to let individuals control more of their own personal and taxpayer money. At the federal level, this means deregulation and government spending cuts, not new programs. “We’re from the federal government, and we’re here to help” is not the message or the behavior of an effective presidential administration.
The biggest school choice boost our family ever got was from Republicans’ doubling of the child tax credit. That puppy is putting three of our kids into an excellent private school. If federal donors controlled that access to private school instead of us, it would endanger our freedom to choose. What seems like it gives more people freedom initially can be made into a weapon to be used against them, because government is easier for special interests to influence than are millions of independent individuals.
This is not theory, it is reality. In Florida, LGBT activists are targeting big donors to a choice program to starve Christian schools of funds upon which many have become reliant. The Trump administration’s budget proposal says “States, not the Federal government, will determine family eligibility requirements and allowable uses of scholarship funds.” Morabito told me in an emailed response to a question about this that “The Secretary’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is a direct way to get education funding to students with no federal strings attached. These tax-credit scholarships never become federal funds, and that’s by design.”
This completely ignores what the Obama administration did with its power, tactics that are now standard for the left. Today’s left is not the 1960s and 1970s Democrats who mostly played by the rules and adhered to the text of laws that were properly passed even if they don’t like what they say. The left’s leaders today are people who ignore the laws as written and do whatever they want, while daring courts and Congress to stop them. The courts and Congress only occasionally do.
This is evident in everything from the attempted rescusitation of the Equal Rights Amendment to Obama’s suspension of the nation’s immigration laws. It was endemic to his use of the U.S. Department of Education. Almost every significant thing Obama did through USDOE was illegal or extralegal. And it all worked. If you think that a future Democrat administration would not use a school choice program to attempt to dictate what religious schools can teach kids about sex, even if the funds are private, I’ve got a lot of bridges to nowhere to sell you, cheap.
Republicans need to stop assuming they can use big government to their own ends. Americans’ experience with that idea has repeatedly proven the real result is a bigger government more able and willing to crush our ideas, families, and communities. If you don’t want a power to fall into the hands of the enemy, don’t make that power possible. Like the One Ring, if you have it, destroy it. It’s that simple.