A closely watched panel chaired by Missouri’s Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt undertook a key public issue Tuesday.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)

Blunt’s appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Education held a hearing to question the agency’s head over its 2018 budget.

Under President Donald Trump’s proposal, education would be cut by $9.2 billion, or 13.5%.  Spending reductions would be spread across K-12 and higher education.

Blunt began the hearing by stating the budget being offered for education had little chance of passing his committee.  He then identified numerous cuts he found unacceptable.

“I think that the significant reduction to programs like career and technical education, TRIO and federal work study will make it harder for students to get into and complete college, and to go into well-paying jobs” said Blunt.  “The outright elimination of several large formula grant programs, like the 21 century community learning centers, I think will be all but impossible to get those kinds of cuts through this committee.”

Blunt also expressed a common priority among conservatives that education decisions not be made at the federal level.

“Often I think the state capitol in my state or other states is too far away for many of these decisions to be made.  And certainly Washington D.C. would be an even bigger challenge to make decisions that affect students and their families and their education all over the country.”

One of Blunt’s priorities got a boost last month when Trump signed a measure that restores eligibility for year round Pell Grants.  The Senator thinks the expanded program increases the graduation chances of many different college students.

“Returning to the year round Pell Grant gives adults returning to school, people paying their own way and working through school, people who are the first people in their family to hope to graduate from college a real, greater likelihood they get that done.”

Blunt is a former teacher and president of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, who has led efforts in Congress to restore year-round Pell Grants.  He claims it’ll provide 20,000 Missouri students who attend class year round an extra $1,650 to pay for college.

The measure signed into law by Trump will stay in place through the end of September.  During the hearing, Blunt stressed the need for the year round program to be accessible.

“I’m very concerned” said Blunt.  “I’ll be watching closely that we don’t have a lot of needless extra hoops to get that summer semester, or that third semester in, that you didn’t have access to for the last nine years now.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos (photo courtesy of Betsy Devos)

Year round Pell Grants existed for 2009-to-2011, but were eliminated over funding shortages.  Devos said the administration would try to ensure the flexibility offered by the extended program would remain after its recent reinstatement.

“You have my commitment that in implementation of it, we will honor the intent of Congress in ensuring that we leave and grant the maximum amount of flexibility to the students in recognizing their needs today.”

During his allotted time questioning Devos, Blunt expressed his disagreement with the Trump administration’s plan to strip out competition among student loan “servicers” (companies that operate as a middleman between lenders and borrowers).  The administration has proposed allowing for only one principal servicer.

Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who is the ranking minority member of Blunt’s committee, harshly criticized Devos for what she called an “extreme” ideological commitment to privatize public schools.

Devos faced a backlash in late February after she called historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers” of school choice.

Missouri’s Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill is a frequent critic of Devos as well.  In a statement last week, McCaskill took aim at the education budget Devos is representing.

“We can’t let DeVos get away with defunding after-school programs or cutting financial support for students already being crushed under mountains of debt” said McCaskill.  “This budget shows a complete lack of understanding of the hardworking students and teachers at our public schools across the country.”

Blunt’s 20 member Subcommittee on Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies features numerous high profile and visible Senators from both sides of the aisle.  Nearly all of them were present and quizzed Secretary Devos.