Appraising Trump's School Choice, Child-Care Plans
Advocates and researchers dealing with school choice and early childhood are pleased that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has released plans addressing those issues after having had little specific to say about K-12 for most of his campaign—but not necessarily for his proposals' level of detail, or what those details actually are.
At the most general level, many of those working on school choice and early childhood say they believe Trump's recent forays into their policy areas have helped raised the subjects' political profile in the campaign and contributed to the surrounding debates. The Republicans' 2012 presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, did not release a detailed proposal for expanding or overhauling child-care programs and policies; however, Romney was an enthusiastic backer of school choice.
But observers also expressed concern not only that the substance of Trump's plans lack detail or leave many unanswered questions, but also could cause problems down the road if he were to actually push them in a presidential administration.
Trump's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Plans on the Table
Trump and his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, take distinctly different approaches on early-childhood and choice issues.
Clinton, for example, proposed capping child-care costs at 10 percent of a family's income. She also has proposed doubling the investment in the federal Early Head Start program and expanding preschool to every 4-year-old over the period of a decade. (A similar Obama administration preschool proposal has a $75 billion price tag.) Clinton has not released a specific proposal on school choice, although she has praised provisions to expand high-quality charter schools in the Every Student Succeeds Act, while opposing private school vouchers.
Trump released his school choice plan before rolling out an early-childhood proposal. Last month, he proposed a $20 billion federal plan to promote access to private, charter, magnet, and other schools for impoverished students. Trump said other federal money would be redirected to pay for the initiative, but did not provide more information on that point. Combined with state and local investments, Trump said that 11 million such students would have access to schools of their choice.
In his Sept. 8 speech at a Cleveland charter school, Trump pitched his plan as a way for students to escape not just struggling public schools but also the education bureaucracy, which he assailed in his speech at the Republican National Convention in July.
"There is no policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly," Trump said in Cleveland.
Separately, Trump in August supported creating a new federal tax deduction for child-care costs, an idea that attracted criticism for not addressing the problems many low-income families have paying for child care.
Then last month, the GOP nominee released a more detailed menu of proposed child-care policies. They include guaranteeing six weeks of paid-maternity leave; allowing a family with a stay-at-home parent to deduct child-care costs from taxes; creating dependent-care savings accounts that families could use, along with a federal subsidy, to pay for a variety of child-care and educational services; and offering incentives to employers to provide child-care services.
Focus on Who Needs It
Questions linger about the specifics of the early-childhood plan, however—for example, whether it's realistic to assume that six weeks of maternity leave can be paid for by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse in federal unemployment insurance, as Trump asserted.
In addition, Trump's proposal simply doesn't do enough to help out lower-income parents, said Elaine Maag, a senior research associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who focuses on support programs for low-income parents and children. She noted that a low-income family in which one adult does not earn an income would not receive any sort of tax-related benefit under Trump's plan.
"I'm very concerned about the quality of child care for very-low-income families," Maag said. "That is not a situation the Trump proposal is trying to address."
It's also fair to question if subsidizing the child-care costs of those households making $150,000 or $200,000 annually is a smart use of public resources, said Katharine B. Stevens, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who studies early-childhood-education initiatives.
Stevens is worried that if the next president takes office with a grand vision but no plans to consider more evidence or debate, it "could short-circuit a growing public conversation to help us come to a collective understanding about why this is important and what we should do."
"We're going to have a limited pot of money for children under 5. And we've kind of divided up that money, without realizing it, into child-care costs and preschool costs. But really, it should all be in one pot," Stevens said. "I don't feel that any candidate is really pulling all the pieces together."
Trump's school choice plan, meanwhile, lacks the detail shown by Romney's 2012 campaign when it released policy proposals for choice, along with other education issues, said Chad Miller, the education policy director at American Action Forum, a nonprofit organization that supports free markets and limited government.
"There's not a whole lot of thought put into this from the Trump campaign, or at least it appears that way," Miller said, adding that the Republican's campaign still has time to "surprise us" and continue to flesh out and press the issue. (Miller's group has no official position on Trump's candidacy.)
Miller identified numerous other concerns with Trump's plan, including the 13 million students eligible for free or reduced-price meals who are not included in his proposal; the possibility that many students in rural areas could be left out; and the various regulations and strings that could be attached to any such federally backed choice fund, reminiscent of the Race to the Top competitive grant program created by President Barack Obama's administration.
Trump's plan "puts the conversation out there that we need to have" and takes a bold approach that stands in contrast to the timidity Democrats sometimes show on school choice issues, said Kevin Chavous, a board member of the American Federation for Children, which backs choice.
But Trump as the messenger for choice doesn't have nearly the political and moral force of someone like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime proponent of choice and a one-time rival of Trump's for the GOP nomination, Chavous added: "Lord knows, he's not the right person to try to do it."
The possibility of leveraging Trump's popularity and platform to foster broader support for school choice is appealing, Miller said. At the same time, Trump's lack of any previous material support for or involvement in school choice efforts could make advocates skeptical leads Miller to be worried that his proposal will become "just another campaign promise."
"It's one thing to get up there and say, 'I support school choice.' But can you answer the next question of how you're going to enact your plan?" Miller said. "You become less helpful if you can't answer that question."
Vol. 36, Issue 07, Pages 18, 22Published in Print: October 5, 2016, as Appraising Trump School Choice, Child-Care Plans