Two Cheers for Education

I’m not ready for a full-throated set of three “Huzzahs” for education just yet. The 2,000 plus page, $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that will keep the government open through August, at least showed some spunk even though still woefully short in fully backing our nation’s students.

The bill does little other than keep some education programs funded for the next year, some with increases to help lagging support in prior years.

However, the specific programs that are getting funded make me think Congress has gotten the message that education in the United States needs more than funding. It needs some real discussions and informed decisions that will set policy on a path to bring about quality opportunities to study for kids all around the country.

When preparing requests to send to Congress regarding education, the Department of Education–that means Sec. Betsy DeVos because she has few assistants or deputies appointed, so she is basically going it alone–asked for budget cuts to public schools and after school programs heavily used by poor and working families, in exchange for $1 billion for vouchers that would only end up subsidizing wealthy families sending their kids to private or religious schools.

The result that gives me hope for education’s future is that her proposals were roundly ignored. Not only was there not one dime allocated for vouchers, some of the projects she has worked hardest to eliminate got raises.

Specifically, the Pell Grant Program designed for low income students to go to college was given the funds to raise its maximum grant from $5,920 per student/per year to $6,095–basically only a cost-of-living increase, but far better than the Department of Education backed cut. That’s still a drop in the bucket to total college costs, but Congress saw the need to keep the grants flowing along with boosting the funding for a work-study program that Mr. Trump wanted to slash in half. Congress also added $107 million to the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, also for low income students’ college expenses. That program was also on DeVos’s chopping block.

Ms. DeVos asked to have the DC Tuition Assistance Grant, which targets Washington D.C. students, who do not have access to affordable in-state universities, cut this year and eliminated by 2019. That program got a $40 million bump.

All of this is great news, but the most encouraging of all is that the Office of Civil Rights, a bureau within the Education Department that is charged with seeing that all students get equal access to education and enforces civil rights in schools, got $8.5 million in new funding. DeVos wanted to eliminate the office. She claimed that it was inefficient and instead of working to modernize and make the office work better, she simply wanted to see its demise. She has spoken often about and backed policies and programs that would eliminate the Students with Disabilities Act and other laws that make sure students with educational challenges, mental and physical, get a fair shot in schools. She specifically targeted school based mental health programs for elimination. Congress would have none of it. This snub of DeVos’s policy will keep these laws intact and allow families to continue getting Individual Education Plans for their disabled students in public schools.

This current funding does little to fix or modernize our public education, which has been left far behind in the race to keep up with quickly changing times. But, it keeps federal programs alive and able to keep striving for results in tasks for which they have been advocating in past years.

In a climate where schools have seen funding cut, teachers and education employees losing salary to growing costs, and the executive branch of the federal government waging a full-scale attack on public education since the first days of this current administration, this iteration of Congress’s intent to challenge the assault in a positive way is encouraging.

A majority of education funding and development are the charge of individual states. Less than 10% of public school funding comes from the federal government. But, the feds have been an eager advocate since 1867 when the first Dept. of Ed. was established, by assisting in ways constitutionally allowed–especially in the areas of civil and equal rights and offering funding opportunities for college study to those who show educational promise and monetary need. Congress can also serve as an example for state funding and this Omnibus bill, which offers schools a $3.9 billion increase in funds, is one way to make the statement that schools matter.

Secretary DeVos and her fight to eliminate public education were big losers with the passing of this complicated bill.

I can’t say that education was a landslide winner in this bill, but indeed, it was a winner compared to its challenger. I still pine for the day when I can add that third “Huzzah” and celebrate three resounding cheers for education. Until then patrons for quality public education can be cautiously optimistic–two cheers worth of optimism.

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