WASHINGTON — Congress dealt a blow to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ school choice agenda in a tentative spending bill released late Wednesday, rejecting her attempt to spend more than $1 billion promoting choice-friendly policies and private school vouchers.
DeVos had sought to cut Education Department funding by $3.6 billion — about 5 percent. Among other cuts, she wanted to eliminate funding for after-school programs for needy youth and ax a grant program that helps low-income students go to college in favor of spending more than $1 billion to promote charter schools, magnet schools and private school vouchers. Her proposal also outlined cuts to the Office for Civil Rights because the office had grown more efficient, she said, a move that outraged Democrats and civil rights groups.
Her budget also eliminated grant programs that supported student mental-health services — a move that received scrutiny in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. DeVos said her budget reflected her policy priorities and her attempts to roll back the role the federal government plays in schools.
“It sharpens and hones the purpose of our mission: serving students by meeting their needs,” DeVos said Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget.”
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Instead, Congress is on track to increase department funding by $3.9 billion, with no funding for the school choice program DeVos envisioned. The spending bill, which must be passed by Friday to avoid another government shutdown, boosts investments in student mental health, including increasing funding by $700 million for a wide-ranging grant program that schools can use for counselors. The bill calls for an additional $22 million for a program to reduce school violence and $25 million for a Department of Health and Human Services program that supports mental-health services in schools.
The spending bill provides $40 million for the popular D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, which gives city students — who don’t have access to a robust in-state university system — affordable college options. The White House had proposed cutting all federal funding to the program.
It also increases funding for the Office for Civil Rights and after-school programs.
It was the second year in a row that Congress rejected her proposals. The bill includes additional investments in early childhood education, including $610 million in new funding for Head Start.
“After more than a year on the job, I would have hoped Secretary DeVos would have learned by now that her extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education do not have support among parents or in Congress, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. “I’m proud to have worked with Republicans in Congress to flatly reject these ideas, and increase funding for programs Secretary DeVos tried to cut, including K-12 education, civil rights protections, college affordability, and more.”
A number of higher-education programs received a boost from appropriators, in a repudiation of the Trump administration’s plans to reduce the federal role in the sector.
Congress rejected DeVos’ proposal to freeze the maximum Pell Grant award to low-income students at $5,920, a ceiling that would have remained in place for the foreseeable future without any directive to adjust the award to inflation. Instead, lawmakers have raised the maximum by $175 to $6,095, to help an estimated 8 million low-income college students who rely on the program to pay for school.
Rather than eliminate the $732 million Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant as DeVos proposed, congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to pour an additional $107 million into the program. Seventy-one percent of the 1.6 million recipients of the grant hail from households earning less than $30,000 a year.
The Trump administration also wanted to halve funding for federal work-study programs that help more than 300,000 students work their way through college. Congress decided to increase its allocation by $140 million, for a total of $1.1 billion.
Lawmakers have also created a $350 million discretionary relief fund to support Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that wipes away federal student debt for people who take jobs in the public sector after they have made 10 years worth of payments. The spending bill also expands the program to borrowers who were enrolled in an ineligible repayment plan but otherwise working in the public sector.
It includes a combined increase of $106 million for programs supporting historically black colleges and universities as well as other institutions serving minorities. The bill also sets aside $1.01 billion, a $60 million increase, for programs that help disadvantaged students enter and complete college. And it pumps an additional $35 million into the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program that assists low-income college students with child-care costs.