School & District Management

How Would Trump’s School Choice Innovation Research Grants Work?

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 23, 2017 3 min read
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The Education Innovation and Research grant program would get more than triple the funding under President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, but the increase would go almost entirely to a new initiative to study private school voucher programs.

The research structure of the grants may prove an awkward fit for the Trump administration’s plans to expand private school vouchers nationwide.

The grants were launched in the Every Student Succeeds Act to help promising education programs build the organization and evidence of effectiveness they needed to scale up. Congress provided $100 million for the grants in its 2017 spending agreement, but the Trump administration’s proposal, released Tuesday, would provide $370 million dollars for the program, with “a portion” of the money used to test the effectiveness of private school vouchers.

“Increasing the evidence base in education will support states and school districts [to] implement the new [ESSA] requirements to use evidence-based interventions in schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement or implementing targeted support and improvement plans. Further, an expanded evidence base will ensure that states and districts have the tools they need to address the persistent challenges in their lowest-performing schools,” the White House proposal states.

As the details of the budget justification show, about $250 million of that $370 million in proposed spending would go to a separate round of up to 10 grants on private school voucher projects. All together, the grant recipients would be able to provide 17,500 to 26,000 vouchers to private secular or religious schools, in the range of $8,000 to $12,000 per student.

The projects funded would focus on strategies to:

  • Expand school choices for parents interested in private school;
  • Improve education for students in poverty and those attending chronically low-performing schools; and
  • Increase competition to improve the quality of all schools.

Separately, the program would hold a $100 million “open EIR competition” for any other education interventions that want to build up their research base. For those of you counting, that’s the same funding level as the original grant program—though if you are looking just at the more holistic grants, it’s also a cut from the fiscal 2016 enacted budget for the program.

As Michele McLaughlan of the Knowledge Alliance pointed out, the voucher-research grants extend three months longer than the open-research grants.

Questions on Voucher Research Approach

The Education Innovation and Research program evolved out of the Obama-era Investing in Innovation grants, and like i3, innovation research grants provide three different levels of funding for projects with increasing levels of evidence supporting them. As the notice for the current competition explains:

Applicants proposing innovative practices that are supported by limited evidence can receive relatively small grants to support the development, iteration and initial evaluation of the practices; applicants proposing practices supported by evidence from rigorous evaluations, such as large randomized controlled trials, can receive larger grant awards to support expansion across the country."

The budget proposal singles out the innovation research program as a model of using evidence to find and support promising programs. But it’s not clear whether the White House intends for the voucher research projects to be held to the same tiered-levels of evidence, however. In the fiscal 2017 budget agreement passed earlier in May, Congress banned new federal randomized controlled trials for studying voucher programs. While ESSA, like its predecessor No Child Left Behind, considered such experimental studies the “gold standard” and the strongest tier of evidence to identify effective programs, Congress suggested less rigorous research methods would be easier on students in the programs. Researchers have criticized the move, but it stands, and only a couple of ongoing voucher evaluations have been allowed to continue.

That is likely to make it more difficult for voucher programs to build up rigorous research support for the program, since the intervention evaluations for the grants are by their nature federally supported studies.

Moreover, it remains to be seen how many districts have the research capacity and political will to attempt to pilot what has historically been a complicated and controversial approach to improving education. An evaluation of the i3 program released earlier this year by the Social Innovation Research Center found that local districts needed significant help from regional and national experts to successfully try out and evaluate any new intervention.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.