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School Choice Fans Should Pump the Brakes on Trump’s Plan, Advocate Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 29, 2016 2 min read
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When Donald Trump released his plan to dramatically expand school choice earlier this month, those who support vouchers, education savings accounts, and various forms of choice were generally pleased with, at the very least, the turn in the spotlight for their issue. But some of the subsequent reaction, while it retains that general satisfaction that the Republican presidential nominee has addressed choice, is not quite as enthusiastic.

Take Chad Miller, the director of education policy at the American Action Forum, a nonprofit organization in Washington that supports free markets and limited government. Miller has also worked for the U.S. House education committee and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In a recent piece for the AAF’s website, he went so far as to say that Trump’s proposal should actually “discourage” friends of school choice.

Why? Miller ticks off several reasons why Trump’s plans lacks details, or worse. Among his concerns:

  • Supply might fail to meet demand, he says, noting that there are concerns about “barriers-to-entry” at many private schools that students might wish to attend.
  • The focus on students in big urban districts leaves out many in rural areas.
  • Trump’s plan could distort or put a strain on school budgets because of inadequate funding for students’ tuition.
  • Individual schools’ autonomy could be diminished.

And then there’s the issue of federal influence. Miller says it’s ironic that Trump has railed against the Common Core State Standards, which some conservatives believe the federal government pushed too hard on states in exchange for additional aid.

“So how exactly is prioritizing funding for states that adopt Trump’s policies any different? It’s not, and therein lies another problem of offering half-baked policy proposals,” Miller wrote.

In an interview, Miller said he’s hopeful that whatever happens to Trump’s presidential aspirations, school choice fans will be able to leverage Trump’s public discussion of the issue into broader support for choice over the long term. But that’s not enough to counterbalance what school choice fans should be worried about with a big, Washington-backed program. (Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., who has favored allowing federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged students to be used at the public or private school of their choice, has also worried about creating, essentially, a federal department of educational choice—one of Messer’s staffers, Rob Goad, is now Trump’s education adviser.)

“What comes along with that are the regulations that either undercut or hamstring the state and/or the schools that are willing to participate,” Miller said.

Helpful Theatrics?

Miller’s viewpoint is not universal, of course. For example, in a piece for the conservative news website Town Hall, Robert Holland, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute wrote on Sept. 28 that, “If nothing else, Trump’s theatrics cast the spotlight on parental choice as a serious election issue more than any recent presidential campaign has done.” And Miller himself calls the plan “commendable.”

However, “theatrics” aside, Miller told me one other reason he’s skeptical about Trump’s long-term commitment to this issue if he’s elected: his track record—or lack thereof. (Trump has written in favor of school choice in at least one of his books, “The America We Deserve.”)

“Trump has never come up as someone out there supporting these issues for us,” Miller said.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College Monday, June 13, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

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