Trump Budget Proposal Reins in Unconstitutional, Bloated Department of Education

This article appeared in Washington Examiner on February 10, 2020.
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If you love a constitutionally constrained federal government, President Trump’s latest budget request for Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education will warm your heart. But there’s more to be done.

Let’s start with the best part: The budget would cut $6.1 billion in education spending overall and consolidate $19.4 billion worth of K‑12 programs into simple block grants to states. That cuts federal strings off of a big chunk of education money, and doing so makes sense.

This would be much more in line with the education power the Constitution gives the federal government — that is, absolutely none — and states are much closer and more accountable to the people the money is supposed to serve than bureaucrats at the Department of Education. Even better would be to let taxpayers keep their money, either by letting states opt out of federal education or by getting rid of the federal intrusion entirely. But this is a good first step.

It is also encouraging to see the administration put forward proposals to cap federal student aid and let colleges limit the debt students can take on.

It is not clear how much substantive difference these proposals would make — there are already caps on some loan programs, and institutions have little incentive to discourage borrowing since their coffers swell when students can pay more — but recognition that aid is at the heart of the college cost problem is welcome.

Things get dicier when it comes to the Education Freedom Scholarships that the secretary of education has been promoting for a while.

The Trump administration’s heart is definitely in the right place: School choice empowers families over bureaucrats and allows diverse people in a pluralist society to select the education that meets their desires and values. And the proposal tries its hardest to avoid centralizing power by taking the form of a tax credit for scholarship donors rather than direct government funding via vouchers. Plus, it is only open to states that choose to join.

Still, the proposal, which is included in this budget, doesn’t cut it in my book.

The federal tax system only exists to raise revenue to execute the specific, enumerated powers the Constitution gives the federal government, and education is not among them. The opt‐​in for states is also somewhat coercive, pressuring them to adopt school choice lest their citizens not get the federal tax credit. And while research has shown that vouchers are more prone to regulation than credits, credits do carry a one‐​size‐​fits‐​all regulation threat to private schools. In Illinois, for instance, credits are connected to a mandate that private schools receiving scholarship students administer state standardized tests.

Finally, the proposal contains some expansions of federal funding and intervention, contradicting constitutional principles and running counter to the overall positive tenor of the education budget. For good reason, career and technical education is trendy these days — we need more alternatives to increasingly less profitable college degrees — but there is no reason to increase federal spending on it by $900 million as this budget would do.

The federal government instead should just stop encouraging four‐​year degrees with profligate student aid.

The budget would also increase money for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The intent is to help populations that have faced and continue to face serious obstacles to success, including discrimination in public schools. But the best of intentions does not mean the Constitution can be cast aside. And good intentions notwithstanding, this act has largely created a “lawyers playground” of litigation between districts and families.

The federal government absolutely should ensure that states and districts do not discriminate in their provision of education, but that does not require big sums of federal funding. It mainly requires a robust civil rights enforcement effort — preferably not by the Education Department, which is poorly equipped for it, but by the Department of Justice.

The Trump administration is working to decrease the deep federal footprint on American education, and it will no doubt suffer the slings and arrows of outraged opponents because of it. But the administration also seems unwilling to go all‐​in on shrinking the federal role in education. Still, two steps forward and one step back sure beats standing still.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.