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Trump Education Adviser Wants ‘Robust Portfolio of Options’ For K-12 Students

By Alyson Klein — March 08, 2017 4 min read
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Jason Botel, a top adviser to President Donald Trump on education issues, sees school choice as a vehicle for furthering educational equity for all students. And he thinks a new pilot program in the Every Student Succeeds Act could help districts expand those student choices.

“We need to build more robust portfolio of school options,” said Botel in a speech Wednesday to the National Parent Teacher Association’s legislative conference. The White House and the U.S. Department of Education are working together, Botel, said, “on the best ways to ensure that all students have the resources they need, as some choose to attend public schools, some choose to attend public charter, public magnet schools, and some choose private schools, online learning.”

Botel didn’t say this specifically, but a federal tax credit scholarship program—like the one created in a bill introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., seems to be one likely route for furthering choice.

In kicking off his remarks, Botel framed school choice as a strategy to make sure all kids get access to an equitable education. Advocates need to collaborate to combat “our common adversaries, inequity of opportunity and inequity of outcome,” he said.

Botel, who served as the president of MarylandCAN, an advocacy organization, before joining the Trump administration and who has taken some heat from Democratic education “reformers” for working with the Trump administration, gave a quick primer on how he came to embrace private school choice for at-risk students.

Botel attended and taught at public schools before helping to bring the KIPP charter network to Baltimore. At first, he tried to prepare his middle school students for admission at Baltimore’s highly competitive and well-regarded magnet high schools. Those magnets worked for some KIPP graduates, but others continued to struggle and even dropped out, Botel said.

“Some of our students and parents needed more options,” Botel said. So he worked to get some KIPP kids into local private schools, including religious schools. Those turned out to be good options for students who might not have succeeded at Baltimore’s competitive public magnet schools. “To this day, many, not most, but many of our kids graduate from private high schools,” Botel said.

Botel didn’t delve into specifics about why some kids might excel at a private school, but founder at a magnet school.

ESSA and Choice

Botel also said the Trump administration sees ESSA, which President Barack Obama signed in 2015, as a great vehicle for educational improvement. And he gave a specific shout-out to a provision of the law that allows the department to pick 50 districts to try out “weighted student funding pilot programs.”

Districts that participate in the pilot can combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students. Some districts, including Denver, are already using this type of formula with state and local dollars.

Here’s why the Trump administration may be interested in the pilot: In theory, adopting a weighted student funding formula could make it easier for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools. (It’s unclear if the money could go to private schools. The mechanics of the law don’t appear to be designed that way.) And importantly districts that opt to participate in the pilot don’t necessarily have to use it to further school choice. (Back in December, we flagged the pilot as one area of ESSA that DeVos and company might use to push a school choice agenda. Longer explanation of the pilot’s potential from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.)

How might Trump’s Education Department engage families? It sounds like it will continue with some practices that have worked for previous administrations, including Obama’s. For instance, Botel mentioned Frances Frost, who serves as the department’s family ambassador, a gig she was chosen for last year, before the Trump team came in.

And he noted that the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services issued a joint policy statement on family engagement. (That statement came out last May, also during the Obama era). He said the department had held several “parent camps” to reach out to families, and planned to do more this year.

How did the speech go over at the PTA, which advocates for public schools?

The organization, which is celebrating its 120th birthday, is waiting for more policy details from the Trump administration.

But the PTA has some skepticism about going big on vouchers. “We are not for private schools that would diminish opportunities for students at large,” said Shannon Sevier, the vice-president for the National PTA. “We are not for public schools that would recruit and serve students in an unfair or uneven way. So it’s interesting to pair equity with a voucher or private model.”

Can a major expansion of school choice help further the goal of educational equity? “I have never seen it work in a real community” or a state, said Laura Bay, the National PTA president. But she’s interested in working with the Trump team on areas of potential common ground, including making sure parents get a say in policy decisions.

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