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Trump Begins to Flesh Out School Choice Agenda, But Questions Remain

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There was no missing the symbolism in President Donald Trump’s first school visit since taking office — a stop at St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, this month.

St. Andrew is “one of the many parochial schools dedicated to the education of some of our most disadvantaged children,” Trump noted, and it’s been helped along by school choice policy.

At the K-8 campus, nearly 300 students receive tuition assistance under Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program, Principal Latrina Peters-Gipson explained in a March 2 op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel. (That’s out of a total enrollment of approximately 340 children.)

“What we offer is a rigorous blend of academics and faith,” she said.

How Will Congress Respond?

Expanding school choice is Trump’s favorite education talking point. The same goes for his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos (along with restoring state and local control). During the St. Andrew visit, Trump reiterated his call for Congress to pass school choice legislation.

With the budget blueprint Trump unveiled this month, school choice is now more than just a talking point. For the first time since his election, he began to offer a few specifics. Trump proposed $1.4 billion for school choice programs (even as the overall U.S. Department of Education budget would be cut by some $9 billion).

But it remains to be seen how Congress will respond. Top Democrats have been sharply critical of the choice plans. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington issued a 20-page memo last week to her Senate colleagues that “lays out the damaging impact of school privatization programs,” as The Washington Post and other news outlets have reported.

Even with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, this and other dimensions of Trump’s budget plan are no slam dunk.

The school choice provisions include an extra $168 million for the federal charter schools program (up from about $330 million currently). Also, $1 billion under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students would be aimed at “encouraging” districts to adopt strategies that allow federal, state, and local dollars to follow low-income students to their public school of choice, according to the White House budget document.

But as Education Week notes, it’s not clear whether that idea, even if enacted by Congress, would actually be used for school choice.

“There are a lot of questions about how that, along with many other parts of Trump’s education budget blueprint, would work,” writes reporter Andrew Ujifusa.

A ‘Down Payment’

Finally, the Trump budget would provide $250 million for “a private school choice program.” That’s all the detail on this particular item, and the administration has yet to make public any further specifics of what it has in mind.

In the end, a federal tax-credit strategy may well be the most politically viable way to expand school choice beyond extra dollars for existing choice programs, as it could be part of a larger tax package that would be easier to pass.

The president’s budget plan said the school choice items would represent a “down payment” on Trump’s campaign pledge to provide $20 billion for school choice.

Even staunch choice advocates question whether such a large-scale effort is attainable.

“It may be a difficult environment for a brand new, $20 billion, fairly large program, no matter what it might be,” said John Kirtley, the vice president of the board of the American Federation for Children, during an Education Writers Association seminar earlier this year in Los Angeles. (DeVos previously chaired the board for the Federation, an advocacy group for public and private school choice.)

Kirtley noted that in his home state, Florida, about 30 percent of K-12 students do not attend their zoned public school and receive taxpayer support to attend their school of choice, whether public or private.

“They attend magnets, charters, virtual, and dual-enrollment [programs] with community colleges,” said Kirtley, who joined President Trump for the visit to St. Andrew Catholic School (and is in the photo above, at right). “And now, yes, using funds through tax credits, private schools. … With the diversity we have in our state, I just believe that all options have to be on the table.”

‘Huge Supply-Side Concerns’

Kirtley was joined by several other speakers for the EWA panel on school choice in the Trump era, including Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform.

“There are huge supply-side concerns” with voucher programs, Jeffries said. Such programs don’t come close to covering the cost of tuition at “very elite private schools,” he said, which can climb well above $15,000 or $20,000 per year. And “mid market” private schools “really don’t exist in many communities anymore,” Jeffries said.

In the end, Jeffries argued that charter schools are a better bet to expand choice, since low-income families can enroll at no cost.

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, argued that the president’s focus on school choice is simply wrongheaded.

The goal should be to make “every public school as good as your best public school,” she said. “Talking about a charter industry or unaccountable vouchers takes us away, takes our eyes off the prize.”

Trump’s budget proposal to step up federal aid for charters was welcome news to Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“We applaud his commitment to providing critically needed funding,” she said in a statement after the budget came out.

However, as Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report explains, the budget appears to be driving a wedge among charter supporters, with some alarmed by a budget that envisions more dollars for choice but big cuts in other parts of the education budget, including for after-school programs and teacher quality.

The Bully Pulpit

At the EWA panel earlier this year, Rees also saw room for increased federal aid to charters, including the possibility of including school facilities aid as part of the $1 trillion Trump has promised for improved infrastructure.

At the same time, she emphasized the power of the bully pulpit. The Trump administration can “bring attention to a lot of the good that has happened around this country in those states that have given parents more freedom to select the school of their choice.”

Political debates over charter schools have intensified over time. A high-profile ballot measure in Massachusetts to lift that state’s charter cap was defeated in 2016. Forces supporting and opposing the measure poured millions of dollars into the campaign. And the NAACP last year made headlines with its call for a moratorium on new charter schools.

The renewed focus on private school choice sparked by President Trump could actually help charters politically, said Kirtley of the American Federation for Children.

“If more emphasis or attention is focused on private school choice, it will take the heat off of charter advocacy,” he said.

One thorny issue when it comes to private school choice programs is what kind of accountability is needed. How much is enough? How much is too much?

Kirtley said that he and Secretary DeVos both support the concept of requiring voucher students to take standardized tests. The results of those tests, he said, should be made public.

“I’ve worked with Betsy DeVos for 20 years on this very subject,” he said. “And I will tell you we’re not popular with some of the people in the choice movement because both of us believe strongly in accountability. We believe that any program, whether a tax-credit program or a voucher program, the kids have to take either the state assessment or a nationally recognized, norm-referenced test that’s approved by the state,” with results publicly reported.

Kirtley also said that participating private schools should be subject to independent financial audits. And yet, he made no mention of academic accountability beyond test scores.

When it comes to charter schools, a central idea is not simply making results public, but actually closing down schools that fail over time to perform well.

No voucher or tax-credit program is likely to go that far. However, in some programs, such as the Indiana and Louisiana voucher programs, schools that receive poor academic ratings based on test scores are not permitted to admit new students supported through state-funded scholarships, as an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates.

When asked what should happen if a voucher school performs poorly, Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform said the answer should go beyond simply making test results available.

“I don’t think the public should fund a school that’s bad,” he said.

Rees suggested that the federal voucher program in District of Columbia might be a good barometer for how a Republican-controlled Congress would proceed. An overview by the research and advocacy group EdChoice indicates that the program requires testing of all voucher students, and that data is used for a “comparative evaluation” with the city’s traditional and charter public schools. But it makes no mention of any consequences pegged to poor academic performance.

“The public does have a right to set accountability standards and systems in place” for voucher programs, Rees said. “How well you walk the line between … putting these requirements in place and not infringing on the autonomy that exists in these private schools is a big issue.”