The Case for Trump’s Education Block Grant
Last week, the Trump administration released its 2021 budget request, which would cut Department of Education outlays by 8 percent while proposing dramatic change in how federal school dollars are allocated. While Trump’s proposed budget was dead on arrival, the proposal to turn dozens of K–12 programs into a block grant merits a closer look.
The administration would consolidate nearly all federal K–12 funding programs (9 formula grants and 20 competitive grants) into a single block grant. This new block grant would be worth $19.4 billion and distributed via the same Title I formula that’s already used to allocate federal dollars to high-poverty schools. The block grant would swallow a host of offerings, including the massive Title I program, the $440 million Charter School Grants, the $2 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, and a range of smaller programs.
The reaction from the education associations was swift and quite negative. The charter school community, in particular, felt betrayed by an administration long regarded as an ally. Even some who support a smaller federal footprint, in principle, questioned the proposal. As the Fordham Institute’s savvy Checker Finn argued, “When it comes to the relatively small portion of K–12 spending derived from Washington, I don’t see any justification for just putting it on a stump and letting states and districts spend it as they see fit. Federal spending programs should advance national priorities.”
Finn makes a valid point. There is, however, more to the story. For starters, there are practical costs to all these fragmented programs.
Of the 29 programs targeted for consolidation, 13 involve less than $100 million a year. While $100 million is a lot of money in real life, it amounts to less than $2 for each child enrolled in U.S. public schools. Meanwhile, those schools spend, on average, more than $13,000 per pupil each year. This means school, district, and state officials spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy writing grants and documenting spending on a slew of programs—all for the equivalent of loose change pried from a sofa.
Things are made worse by the complex maze of regulations attached to these grants. These regulations, known collectively as Education Department General Administrative Regulations (or EDGAR), detail who may apply for grants, how applications must be submitted, how funds may be used, and much else. The regulations span 97,000 words, about the length of a hefty novel. As education attorneys Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric have pointed out with lawyerly understatement, “In practice, all this complexity makes spending ED funds and understanding what the funds can pay for difficult.”
For example, many districts currently use Title I funds to support a reading program for high-poverty students and Title III funds for a reading program for English language learners, with both distinct from core reading instruction. This is largely a product of districts trying to stay on the right side of guidelines intended to ensure that federal aid “supplements” core programs. Spending reading money more coherently wouldn’t be illegal (federal law doesn’t require these discrete programs) but district staff are always aware that offering instruction which mirrors the federal programs is a good way to keep overzealous auditors at bay.
Ineffectual and duplicative spending aren’t the only problems with existing federal grants. There are also more immediate costs. The School District of Philadelphia spends $6 million a year on personnel charged with “grant compliance.” Chicago spends $30 million on a finance team whose duties include managing federal grant applications and monitoring the district’s compliance with grant regulations.
The burden of federal regulation doesn’t fall only on school leaders and district administrators. Eighty-six percent of teachers report that there’s "too much paperwork and documentation" in the nation’s schools and that it takes time that could be better spent planning, instructing, or mentoring. And then there are the staff at state education agencies, whose largest single responsibility is trying to ensure compliance with and adequate reporting on federal spending guidelines.
The Trump proposal isn’t going anywhere this year. Moreover, whether or not it proves viable in 2021 or beyond, keep in mind that the $20 billion in question is perhaps 3 percent of what the U.S. spends on public education in the U.S. This means that the fate of the proposal is unlikely to have major impact on American schooling. But it might promote smarter spending and reduce the paper burdens that frustrate educators. And that would be a welcome development, indeed.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. RJ Martin is a research associate at AEI.