Existing Tools Offer Trump School Choice Options

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President-elect Donald Trump may yet push to create a big school voucher program—but there are other options open if the incoming administration wants to expand educational choice around the country.

During the presidential campaign, Trump advocated for a $20 billion voucher program aimed at low-income students, with an eye toward leveraging additional state investment in choice programs. And his pick to be education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a prominent Michigan-based school choice advocate, has vigorously supported vouchers and other forms of choice around the country for more than two decades.

Getting a voucher bill approved by federal lawmakers could be a very tall order for a variety of reasons, however, even if it doesn't require finding a new funding source. It might be easier for the Trump administration to use existing federal law and programs to expand choice, rather than focus solely on creating federally backed vouchers.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, for instance, offers several ways for Trump and DeVos to push choice, although not on the scale Trump envisioned in his $20 billion initiative.

The law allows up to 50 school districts to participate in a "weighted student funding formula" pilot. The pilot is quite different from a traditional voucher program, and isn't ultimately a choice program. The pilot would allow districts to tailor the amount of money each student gets to those students' needs. That could help direct more cash to English-language learners, for example.

However, there are some caveats. High-poverty schools, for example, would have to get priority. And, crucially, the money under the pilot program couldn't go to private schools. More broadly, it's also unclear how attractive this pilot would be to small districts, or those that haven't already started using their own weighted funding formula.

The Obama administration hasn't yet opened up this pilot for districts since the president signed the bill in late 2015. But DeVos could decide to make it a priority.

Title I Funding Shifts

There's also the option for states to set aside up to 3 percent of their Title I money for disadvantaged students to allow them to transfer to better-performing public schools, including charters. And, under ESSA, districts can transfer money into a part of the law that could be used to promote things like virtual courses, at least in theory.

Those options don't represent the kind of home run that private school choice fans might be hoping for. But DeVos and the rest of the Trump administration could highlight them to encourage states and districts to expand the educational options, and to generally make those options more prominent in policy discussions.

Aside from ESSA itself, there are different initiatives the incoming Trump administration could try to get through Congress, although they present their own challenges.

One option is a tax-credit scholarship bill. This would allow individuals and corporations to claim a federal tax credit if they donate to organizations that provide funds to defray the costs of private school scholarships for students. Right now, 17 states provide some form of tax-credit scholarships to students.

"Congress does not like the unknown that much. Knowing that this has been done in 17 states with hundreds of thousands of kids and hundreds of millions of dollars given out to kids" would help such a plan's chances, said Adam Peshek, the director of education choice at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy group that backs choice.

Unlike a new $20 billion voucher program, congressional procedure could allow for easier passage of tax-credit scholarships. However, it's unclear whether a bill to create them would run afoul of Republicans who want fewer wrinkles in the federal tax code, not more.

In addition, any tax bill to create such credits would not be considered by the education committees in Congress. Instead, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee would take them up.

"The 'usual suspects' in education debates—teachers' unions, state chiefs, school boards, administrators, and civil rights organizations—may not be organized to lobby in this different environment," Christopher Cross, the chairman of the education consulting firm Cross and Joftus, wrote in an email.

'Real Money'

Trump's team and Congress also could decide to tweak two existing education-related savings accounts to allow them to be used for private schools.

The first is the Coverdell Education Savings Account program, in which contributions grow tax free and can be used for private as well as public K-12 costs. These have a $2,000 maximum annual contribution limit.

The second is the 529 college savings account program. Unlike the Coverdell accounts, 529 accounts tend to have much higher contribution limits, but right now are only applicable to higher education costs.

By combining elements of both plans, Peshek said, "you could have some real money to play around with."

The administration also could build on the federal Charter School Program, which provides seed money to new charters, said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which favors school choice. That program, he said, has boosted charters without imposing cumbersome Washington mandates.

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"I don't know of anyone who says the federal government has captured charter schooling," Smarick said.

Smarick has pitched a $250 million Diversity and Choice Demonstration Program that would be similar to the Charter School Program. It would put a priority on tutoring services that could be paid for with education savings accounts, nonprofits studying accountability for private schools, and groups that train people to start new schools.

Finally, there's a strong chance Republicans will seek to expand the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has provided nearly 6,500 private school scholarships over roughly the last dozen years in the nation's capital. GOP lawmakers and President Obama butted heads over the scope and effectiveness of the program.

Vol. 36, Issue 17, Page 11

Published in Print: January 11, 2017, as Vouchers Aside, Existing Tools Offer Trump School Choice Options
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