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Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice World

By Arianna Prothero — May 26, 2017 3 min read
Eric Ueland, the Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, distributes President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 federal budget to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill on May 23.
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If there’s a clear winner in President Trump’s proposed budget for K-12, it’s school choice. With steep cuts slated for many cornerstone programs, the president, as expected, wants to boost investments in charters and vouchers.

But prominent players in the school choice world are hardly mooning over Trump’s plans to sink $1.4 billion into private and public school choice.

The proposed budget for fiscal 2018, which would pump more money into grants to create charter schools, establish a program to research and promote vouchers, and direct $1 billion in Title I funding for public school choice in districts, drew divergent reviews from advocates. The budget also would slash spending on teacher and principal training, after-school programs, and career and technical education.

Some of the harshest criticism came from charter supporters.

“The fundamental problem is that this budget doesn’t invest in anything other than choice,” said Shavar Jeffries, the national president for Democrats for Education Reform. “It’s unbelievably bad policy, because while we support choice, we also have to support college access, and we have to support teacher training, and we have to support investments in traditional public schools as well.”

Eli Broad, the Los Angeles billionaire who is a major financial backer of charters, also condemned the budget, saying in a statement that it “would hurt the very communities that have the most to gain from high-quality public school options.”

Reaction from private school choice supporters, most of whom also advocate for a limited federal role in education, was more mixed.

“On the one hand, it is a good thing to see an administration be positive about the potential in all school choice—public and private,” said Jonathan Butcher, the education director for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank. “But the fact remains, states should be the ones to take the lead and make school choice a reality for their communities.”

A ‘Down Payment’

School choice emerged as Trump’s favored K-12 policy during the campaign when he pledged to sink $20 billion into school choice initiatives.

If choice advocates were hoping for the budget plan to clarify—or even hint at—what shape a major school choice program would take, they were likely disappointed. Among the more prevalent predictions is that such a proposal will eventually take the form of a federal tax-credit scholarship program where businesses and individuals receive a tax credit for donating to scholarship funds that students may use at private schools.

Instead, Trump’s budget calls for an additional $167 million for the federal grant program that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, a $250 million increase to the Education Innovation and Research grant program to study and test voucher programs, and the additional $1 billion in Title I funds that would follow eligible low-income students to the public schools of their choice.

While the administration missed a chance to update Trump’s $20 billion school choice promise, said Jeanne Allen, the chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, she noted how the White House called its budget plan a “down payment” on school choice.

Otherwise, she categorized the budget as “fairly traditional,” worthy of neither excitement nor outrage.

Even so, Trump’s clear support for school choice will continue to be hotly debated, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ contentious testimony during a House subcommittee hearing the day after Trump’s budget was released last week. There, Democrats pushed DeVos to say whether she would prohibit federally funded vouchers from going to private schools that don’t admit certain groups of students, such as LGBT students.

DeVos demurred, saying it would be up to states to make those decisions. She later clarified in a statement on Twitter that the “Department of Education can and will intervene when federal law is broken.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Trump Budget Draws Ire, Tepid Support From School Choice World

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