President's perspective

Trump’s bad news budget

We’ve been preparing for this moment. The storm clouds have been gathering and we’ve been taking care of our ship in New York. But there is definitely a rough journey ahead of us.

Trump threw down the gauntlet on March 16 when he released a $1.1 trillion budget proposal that gutted the budgets of many federal agencies while boosting military spending by $54 billion. A presidential budget is less a true budget — the U.S. Congress ultimately passes spending bills — and more a window into the mind and mindset of its maker. That view is disturbing.

The budget provided a concrete outline of the priorities Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have on education. During the campaign, Trump promised to invest $20 billion in a school voucher program. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos, unable to answer questions of substance, parroted the empty rhetoric of “parent choice,” nothing more than a privatizing scheme.

Now, in the president’s budget blueprint, we see this is a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers. The score can be tallied in dollars awarded and dollars taken away.

On the losing side is public education and disadvantaged, low-income students from kindergarten through college. The Trump budget chops funds for the U.S. Department of Education by $9 billion, a dramatic downsizing of 16 percent.

The damage the education budget cuts inflict is substantial: Twenty programs are either eliminated or significantly reduced. The Trump budget would scrap $2.4 billion in Title II grants that help states reduce class size and recruit, support and train educators, particularly in high-needs schools. Aid to 1.6 million low-income college students would disappear, and the Federal Work Study program that helps students gain a foothold in the workplace after graduation would become a shadow of its former self.

The budget also slashes $1.2 billion from the federal government’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school and summer programs for 1.6 million children in high-poverty areas. It would eliminate after-school and tutorial programs that are making a difference for 30,000 New York City students.

When questioned by reporters about such a heartless cut, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, replied that feeding hungry children doesn’t help them improve in school. Setting aside the fact that serving meals is not the primary mission of these programs, studies, in fact, prove him wrong. But you don’t need a study to know that no child should go hungry. That a Trump official would make that kind of case tells you everything you need to know about the moral bankruptcy of their intentions.

While vital programs and grants are starved, the Trump budget serves up a feast for charter schools and private-school voucher programs.

The plan includes a $168 million increase for Charter Schools Program grants, which fund the expansion of charter schools, boosting the program by about half. And it proposes a new $250 million private-school choice program.

The president’s budget would also increase Title I funds for poor students by $1 billion to encourage school districts to adopt a “choice” program that allows the funding to follow the student to any traditional public school — or charter school — that accepts the child. This sort of funding portability has always been used as the first step toward the ultimate goal of vouchers.

The strategy is to shift federal tax dollars, which, in turn, starts a process of defunding and destabilizing neighborhood public schools. The results can be seen in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where overall student achievement plummeted as a result of redirecting millions of taxpayer dollars from public schools to unregulated for-profit charters.

This is just the beginning. The $1.4 billion set aside for school choice in this budget proposal represents only a slice of the $20 billion program that Trump promised on the campaign trail. Part of the reason is that Trump could not touch existing Title I funds because the Every Student Succeeds Act stipulates how they must be spent. I expect a much bigger chunk of money for private and religious schools will be furnished in tax legislation that establishes tax-credit vouchers.

Congress will now weigh in on the president’s spending plan, and if the health care reform debate is any guide, Republicans will not embrace everything in it. But as a statement of principles, the Trump budget reminds us this is a president who does not value public education, its students or its teachers.

The AFT, hand in hand with the UFT, has been battling in Washington, D.C., to beat back these proposals. The UFT and our state affiliate, NYSUT, have also locked horns with the Senate GOP here in New York over its budget proposals favoring charter schools at the expense of public schools. Thousands of faxes were sent and phone calls made to Republican state senators. On the same day as upstate protests, UFT members on March 24 picketed the offices of Republican senators Andrew Lanza on Staten Island and Marty Golden in Bay Ridge to tell them that our public schools — not wealthy charter chains — need their support.

If you haven’t already done so, please join our #PublicSchoolProud campaign to help us fight for our public schools in the weeks and months ahead. Now more than ever, we need to tell our stories about the triumphs, big and small, that occur every day in New York City public schools.

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