What Does Governor Romney’s Pledge Not to Cut Education Spending Really Mean?

During last week’s debate, Mitt Romney made what sounded like, to many, a straightforward promise not to cut federal education spending if elected: “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and—and grants that go to people going to college… I’m not planning on making changes there.”

How seriously you take this pledge seems to depend a lot on which candidate you support. But it’s fair to argue that there’s some wiggle room in Romney’s statement. For one thing, we know that presidents can propose what are ultimately going to be de facto program cuts to some programs but call them something else. Over the last several budgets, for example, the Obama administration has proposed what are essentially cuts to certain federal education programs by proposing to “consolidate” them under broader program titles. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that overall education spending gets cut, it can lead to certain funding streams being reduced under the new consolidated programs, whatever they may be. (Thus the administration was able to say that they proposed an overall increase to education in FY11, even while creating conditions that essentially resulted in the elimination of federal funding for family literacy when it consolidated away the Even Start program.)

There are also programs outside the Department of Education budget, such as the Corporation for National and Community Service (to pick one example) that provide educational programs. This you could eliminate CNCS while still claiming you are technically not cutting education, even though elimination of this program would effectively reduce federal education resources. (By this logic, some would argue that eliminating funding for PBS, as Romney did say he would do, would also effectively be an education cut.)

And while the automatic, across-the-board sequestration cuts that are currently set to occur on January 2nd can’t by any stretch be considered Romney policy, if he is elected and those cuts go into effect, he will in fact be presiding over a significant cut to education spending, and/or be working with Congress on legislation to eliminate sequestration with another plan.  His pledge to not cut education spending would be more significant, I think, if he would make it explicit that his sequester replacement plan would leave education spending untouched.

Most importantly, as we’ve seen over the last several years, Congress and the administration often must compromise in order to get a budget passed, and in that compromise the administration may be forced to cut programs it would rather not cut in order to preserve funding for programs it believes are more important. If Romney is elected, we can assume that Republicans will retain control of the House, and possibly gain control of the Senate (where Paul Ryan would have the tiebreaker vote). Doesn’t it seem likely that Congressional Republicans would craft a budget with significant education cuts whether Romney likes it or not? And then what would he do? Would Romney actually pick a fight with his own party over these cuts?

I think it’s safe to assume that the Obama administration did not intend to reduce education spending when it took office in 2009. But that hasn’t prevented federal education spending from declining significantly. Is it reasonable to expect that a Romney administration would make the same effort—and with better success—at fighting off Congressional spending cuts to education than the Obama administration has?

A good followup question to Romney about his debate statement would be: Does your pledge not to cut education spending include a promise to veto any legislation passed by Congress that includes education cuts? I hope this comes up again in a future debate.

P.S. For adult education advocates, it’s also worth thinking about what other areas of the budget Romney might propose going after in order to preserve K-12 and higher education funding. Is adult education part of the education funding Romney is pledging to protect? (Doubtful.) If not, would adult education be even more vulnerable to cuts as Romney struggles to find other areas of discretionary spending to eliminate in order to offset the K-12/higher education spending holds?