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At School Choice Event, Trump Praises D.C. Vouchers for Helping Kids Graduate

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 03, 2017 4 min read
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At a White House event Wednesday to promote school choice, President Donald Trump praised a District of Columbia program that provides vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools. But he didn’t mention a recent federal study showing negative impacts on studentswho received the vouchers compared to those who applied for, but did not get, the vouchers.

Trump stopped by the event, which was led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence, and said the following, according to a transcript of the president’s remarks sent along by the administration:

The opportunity scholarship program that we’re funding allows families in the inner city of our nation’s capital to leave failing public schools and attend a private school, making an extraordinary difference in these incredible young lives. ... The results speak for themselves. Ninety-eight percent of scholarship recipients represent their high school diplomas, and they’re really very, very special. They go into tremendous successes.

You can watch a video of the Wednesday event below:

In his remarks, Trump also said he was calling on federal lawmakers to pass an expansion of school choice to help children “live out their dreams and fill up their hearts and be educated at the top, top level.” And in his own remarks, Pence said of the D.C. voucher program, “It’s a case study in school choice success.”

So was Trump correct in his praise for the D.C. voucher program? The 98 percent graduation rate Trump cited appears to come from data posted by the group administering the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for the 2015-16 school year. Recent research also indicates that the D.C. vouchers program does have a “significant positive impact on parent-reported high school graduation rates.” That’s according to a 2013 study, “School Vouchers and Student Outcomes: Experimental Evidence from Washington, DC.” And a 2010 study from the Institute for Education Sciences also found a similar positive impact on voucher recipients’ graduation rates, compared to the control group of students.

So Trump’s got some research-based justification for highlighting the graduation rates of children in the D.C. voucher program.

However, there’s a significant omission from Trump’s Wednesday remarks that doesn’t deal directly with graduation rates: A study released last week, also from IES, showing that voucher recipients’ performance on math was negatively affected. The study also said parental satisfaction with their children’s school wasn’t impacted by the vouchers, although it did improve parents’ perceptions of the safety of their children’s schools.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., used the study to call on DeVos, a prominent supporter of vouchers and other formers of school choice, to cancel her “reckless plans to privatize public schools.” However, Jeanne Allen, the CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which also supports vouchers, called the newest IES study of D.C. vouchers “ridiculous” and lacking rigor.

The new fiscal 2017 spending deal, expected to be approved by Congress and signed by Trump by the end of this week, extends the D.C. voucher program through Sept. 30 and flat-funds it at $45 million. However, the deal also prohibits further randomized, controlled trials of the program. The spending agreement doesn’t halt such studies already underway—the study released last week was a product of such a randomized, controlled trial, which is considered the gold standard of research.

The lead author of the most recent study, Mark Dynarski, told our colleague Sarah Sparks that he’s concerned the spending bill’s language about research could “muddy the water” about the role of evidence and research, especially under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Prospects for Choice in Congress

In prepared remarks at the event, DeVos said the desire for school choice is strong among parents because, “They’re not satisfied with their current school. They believe access to options can give their child a better opportunity to learn and thrive.”

Trump has been a major proponent of school choice both on the campaign trail and since assuming the presidency. In its preliminary fiscal 2018 spending blueprint, the Trump administration is seeking $250 million in new money for an unspecified school choice initiative.

That blueprint also called for doubling the federal investment in charter school grants, boosting funding to $500 million, and for using a $1 billion increase in Title I funding to promote public school choice. (It’s unclear how Title I money could be used in that fashion, but again, we’re still waiting a more detailed budget proposal for 2018 from the president.)

A few school choice bills have been introduced this Congress, but none has gotten real traction so far.

Photo: President Donald Trump speaks during a school choice event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, May 3. Photo by Evan Vucci/AP