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School Choice: Will Trump Help or Hurt the Cause?

By Arianna Prothero — November 30, 2016 | Corrected: December 01, 2016 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect estimate of the number of students participating in voucher and other related school choice programs.

School choice advocates are waffling between excitement for potentially unprecedented new opportunities under a Donald Trump administration, and concern that the president-elect could also dramatically undermine the school choice movement.

Trump’s promise on the campaign trail to spend $20 billion on school vouchers for low-income students could herald a massive expansion of school choice—especially with his selection of an ardent school choice activist as his new education secretary. But the election’s polarizing outcome and Trump’s comments on race could also prove corrosive to the school choice movement’s increasingly tenuous claim to bipartisan support—in particular for charter schools.

More than half of the nearly 6 million students enrolled in the nation’s charter schools are black and Latino.

“It seems highly likely that there might be some increase for the federal [charter school] program. ... We would applaud that. The problem is almost everything else,” said Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports charter schools and teacher merit pay.

Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos, a Republican mega-donor with a long record of championing vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and charter schools, also brought mixed reaction from the school choice community.

Jeffries expressed guarded optimism because of DeVos’ record of support on charter schools, but called on her to “push the President-elect to disavow” the bigoted and offensive rhetoric he used on the campaign trail toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

“If charter school policy becomes primarily identified with Trump and his agenda, that could undermine the political viability of charter school policy with progressives and people of color for a generation,” Jeffries said.

But other choice advocates see Trump’s election as an opening to advocate for and expand school choice, a feeling that was further affirmed by DeVos’ selection.

“I think [DeVos’ appointment] signals that Trump is not going to do business as usual when it comes to K-12 education,” said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation. “And this issue of parental options is going to be one of the most important things coming out of this administration.”

Money Follows Students

Trump’s most detailed education proposal during the campaign was a pledge to allow states to use $20 billion dollars in federal money that would follow low-income students to a school of their choice, be it a private, magnet, charter, or traditional public school.

Lawmakers last year rejected a similar proposal attached to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have allowed federal money to follow students to the school of their choice.

If such a program were passed under Trump’s administration—and that’s a big if because of the scale of the proposal and one that would require Congressional approval—it would represent an enormous expansion of private school choice programs.

Current public spending on private school programs in states is about $1.5 billion, according to Enlow.

But even if Trump is able to make good on his campaign promise to create federal school vouchers for low-income students, the vast majority of the nation’s 50 million public school students will remain in district-run, neighborhood schools.

The full contours of Trump’s proposal are still largely unknown, but presumably not all of the $20 billion would be, or could be, set aside for private-school vouchers. A large share of eligible families would likely choose to send their kids to other traditional public schools, or charters, which are public. Of those that may choose a private school option, there’s an issue of whether there would be enough private schools at a low enough cost to meet demand.

Of the 50 million students in public schools, only five percent attend charter schools. A little more than 1 million students, or 2 percent, use vouchers and related school choice programs, according to numbers from EdChoice.

Even if Trump’s voucher plan is never realized, there’s plenty for supporters of vouchers to celebrate, said Enlow.

“One of the reasons I’m excited about the next four years, in terms of school choice, there is going to be a chance to advocate and educate about this issue,” he said.

Another encouraging sign for some advocates beyond the appointment of DeVos: Trump’s transition team has no shortage of school choice stalwarts.

‘Unprecedented’ Support

In addition to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who oversaw aggressive expansion of Indiana’s school voucher program during his tenure as governor there, Trump has also tapped experts from right-leaning think tanks to advise his transition team on education policy.

“It’s kind of unprecedented to have this many people from the top on down who not only embrace school choice, but understand it,” said Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, a longtime proponent of school choice.

Gerard Robinson, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former state chief in Florida and Virginia, is advising Trump’s transition team on education issues, along with Williamson Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

School choice advocates are also hopeful that with support from the Trump White House, Congress will expand the District of Columbia’s private school voucher program—known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The program, which is the only federally funded voucher program and is currently funded at $20 million through 2016, has been in limbo for a while. The Obama administration has long opposed it, and while the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the program in April, the Senate has not yet acted on a companion bill.

There are some private school choice supporters who are wary, however. Jonathan Butcher, the education director for the Goldwater Institute, a right-leaning think tank, is one.

Although he’s pleased with the people Trump has working on education policy so far, Butcher warns that federal investment on the scale that the president-elect has proposed would bring federal bureaucracy.

“When you’re talking about parental options in the states, every state is different, they have different needs, they have different provisions in their constitution[s] that determine how school choice programs have to be structured, and they’ll have different kinds of opposition,” he said. “That’s a state concern and a state project. When Washington does it, they have trouble not painting with a broad brush.”

A Bipartisan Issue?

But while Trump’s support may lead to major investments in school choice, some of his other policies, such as a nationwide stop and frisk program, and his comments on ethnic and religious minorities, could also poison the idea among key groups of charter school supporters and some Democrats.

This is an especially sensitive issue for charter school advocates, who carefully guard the movement’s status as a bipartisan issue.

“I think it feeds a narrative that choice is about privatization and conservative values,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

She’s concerned that while promoting his school choice plan, Trump was too harsh in describing traditional schools in urban districts.

“The support for charter schools relies on bipartisan support especially in big cities where choice is probably most needed,” Lake said “The people we work with are always treading a careful political and rhetorical line.”

It’s an issue charter advocates have had to wrestle with a lot lately, as the sector has taken some hard political hits.

In October, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People officially called for a ban on new charter schools, citing concerns over segregation and discipline policies. The Movement for Black Lives adopted a similar stance.

In the Democratic-heavy state of Massachusetts, voters there soundly defeated a ballot measure that would have lifted the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open up in the state.

It was considered a big win for the teachers’ unions, which spent significantly less than charter school advocates on campaigning and fought the effort largely on the claims that charter schools take resources away from district schools and don’t serve students with disabilities.

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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