Analysis: With $2.4 Billion in Cuts, President’s Education Budget Neglects Student Safety, Health & Learning

As part of the president’s 2020 budget proposal, the White House highlighted $700 million in programming to address school safety, spread across the Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services departments. While such funds would offer school communities a range of security and mental health grants to choose from, the package would also eliminate the $1.2 billion Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant, as well as $1.2 billion in funding for afterschool programming.

State and local education leaders need a federal budget that lives up to their vision of a comprehensive approach to advancing student health, safety and learning. The 2020 proposal doesn’t come close.

Under the proposed budget, federal agencies would administer 14 competitive programs to secure school buildings, support student mental health, improve student behavior, implement threat assessments, and address gang and youth violence. Communities wanting federal funding would have to compete for dollars for mental health supports, compete again to secure funding for prevention programs, and so on. And yet, we know that keeping students safe often requires that attention be paid to all of the above.

For example, security cameras may help keep a building secure, but recent research suggests that cameras used inside schools to monitor and intervene in student behavior can make students feel less safe.

Universal approaches, wherein all students receive programming to support their healthy development, can be effective at preventing harmful behaviors but may not help the small percentage of students who need more targeted mental health supports. Mental health services alone cannot create the positive social norms and climate that are strongly connected to a safe school environment.

School officials have told researchers they require additional support, but their needs and concerns go far beyond addressing overt forms of violence to include underlying issues, particularly those involving school relationships and student health. A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, points to myriad challenges that schools face — including incivility, opioid addiction, cyberbullying, firearms, and student stress and anxiety. A 2018 Child Trends study of stakeholder priorities around school supports found that educators referenced the need to address student mental health and school climate far more often than safety and security. Moreover, educators recognize that students’ mental well-being cannot be separated from their physical well-being, both of which are inherently tied to behavior.

State officials are working to address the full spectrum of students’ academic, physical, mental and social needs that are critical to promoting school safety with legislation that moves education policy toward a whole-child approach. In Texas, for example, lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan package of 24 bills to improve access to mental health supports, ensure safe drinking water, support the implementation of restorative justice and clarify the role of social workers. This follows a 2016 legislative effort in Washington state to advance integrated student supports — a school-based framework that connects students and their families to health, mental health, academic, food and housing supports.

But federal agencies have not been the strongest partners in these efforts: Federal grants have only recently provided flexible, dedicated funding to support comprehensive approaches to school safety. Over the past decade, states and school districts have weathered a roller coaster of federal support, starting with the 2009 elimination of dedicated formula funding for school safety. For years afterward, communities seeking federal support had to navigate and compete for a patchwork of competitive programs similar to the menu offered under the 2020 budget. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act signaled an end to siloed funding with the revival of federal formula dollars for both student safety and health, under the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program. This provides funding to every state to support three buckets of activities: student health and safety, educational technology and a well-rounded curriculum.

The program is an admittedly unwieldy vehicle for increasing federal investment in school safety, but it provides the one thing that states sorely need right now: dedicated, dependable and flexible funds that can support long-term, comprehensive planning to improve school safety. School districts that receive this funding must use at least 20 percent of their allocation for each of the three buckets of programs. This means that after Congress dramatically increased the program’s funding following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, from $400 million to $1.2 billion, a significant portion of these dollars will likely go to non-safety purposes. Unlike the package of discretionary grants featured in the 2020 budget proposal, the program’s funds can more easily be used to address the vast array of student needs that underlie the creation of safe schools. And because those funds are awarded by formula, rather than through competition, all states benefit.

For 2020, states and districts need a federal budget that supports the ambitions of education leaders. Such a budget would make it easier for states to integrate and expand their efforts to strengthen physical and mental health supports, improve relationships between staff and students, and facilitate students’ social and emotional development. Such a budget would help all school communities — not just those with the capacity to compete for short-term funding — to access the resources they need to create conditions in which students can learn in safety.

Kristen Harper and Deborah Temkin are school climate experts at Child Trends, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C. Both formerly served in the U.S. Department of Education.

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