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Donald Trump Backs Merit Pay, Funds for School Choice

By Alyson Klein — September 13, 2016 2 min read

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is pledging that, if elected, he’d be the “nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” and would offer states the chance to use $20 billion in federal money to create vouchers allowing children in poverty to attend the public, charter, or private school of their choice.

In a speech at a charter school in Cleveland, he also said he’s a supporter of merit pay for teachers—a signature policy of both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush’s administrations—although he did not explain how he hopes to further the cause, other than rhetorically taking aim at tenure.

“There is no policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” Trump said. “The Democratic Party has trapped millions of African-American and Hispanic youth” in struggling schools.

“We want every inner-city child in America to have the freedom to attend any school,” he said.

Trump said that the $20 billion in federal funds could be combined with more than $100 billion in state and local money to create vouchers of up to $12,000 annually for the nation’s poorest kids.

He did not say where the $20 billion would come from, but it’s possible he was referring to Title I money for disadvantaged students, funded at about $15.5 billion right now. His plan would depend on state and local cooperation: If states and districts decided not to add their own money to the federal financing, the scholarships would be pretty paltry.

Common Theme

Trump’s school choice plan is similar to what 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed for K-12 in 2012.

And last year, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., introduced amendments to what became the Every Student Succeeds Act that would have allowed federal money to follow students to the school of their choice, public or private. Those amendments failed to get enough support to pass the House or Senate.

But Messer said in an interview this summer that he thinks the policy could get new life under a potential Trump administration.

On merit pay for teachers, Trump said only that he finds it unfair that “bad ones” sometimes earn “more than the good ones.” Obama also encouraged districts to adopt performance pay, through the Race to the Top competition and the $230 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which Bush started.

Trump’s main rival for the White House, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn’t addressed the issue of merit pay head-on recently, but she has said that she’s not in favor of tying teacher evaluations to test scores, which also was a signature Obama policy.

Trump also hit some of the K-12 themes he’s sounded throughout the campaign, attacking the Common Core State Standards and arguing that the United States spends more on education than most other developed countries for iffy results.

Jeanne Allen, the founder of the Center for Education Reform, which supports school choice, called the idea “pie in the sky,” given the current Washington political dynamic.

But she also noted that Trump did not say the $20 billion for his school choice idea would have to come from the current U.S. Department of Education budget.

But Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that “No matter what you call it, vouchers take dollars away from our public schools to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense with little to no regard for our students.”

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