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Trump Pitches Using Federal Funds for School Choice, Champions Merit Pay

By Alyson Klein — September 08, 2016 4 min read
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GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump said Thursday that, if elected, he’d be the “nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” and 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.

And he said he’s a supporter of merit pay for teachers—a signature policy of both President 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 in this fact sheet.

“There is no policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” the GOP presidential nominee said in a speech at a charter school in Cleveland. “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,” Trump 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 in funding 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 pretty paltry.

It’s worth pointing out that a $12,000 tuition voucher wouldn’t come very close to covering the cost of the private schools attended by Trump’s children, or Hillary Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, for that matter.

Does Trump’s school choice plan sound familiar? It’s very similar to what the last GOP presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. 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. (Maybe not coincidentally, one of Messer’s education aides is now working for the Trump campaign.)

On merit pay, Trump said only that he finds it unfair that “bad ones,” referring to teachers, sometimes make “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 was started by Bush.

Trump’s main rival for the White House, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn’t addressed the issue of merit pay head-on recently, but she has said repeatedly that she’s not in favor of tying teacher evaluations to test scores—also a signature Obama policy. And when she was running for president against Obama in 2008, she wasn’t a fan of merit pay for individual teachers, even though she liked the idea for entire school staffs. (More on Clinton and Trump’s education proposals here.)

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. (Andrew fact-checked similar claims last year.)

The charter school that Trump visited—and where he spoke to a group of students prior to his speech—does not exactly have a stellar academic record, according to its most recent report card. The Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy got an F for overall progress, achievement gap-closing, and received a D and an F on two achievement measures.

Before launching into his speech, Trump thanked Ron Packard, who is the CEO of Panosophic Learning, an education company that operates virtual and brick-and-mortar schools. Packard founded K12 Inc., where he also served as CEO, and left that company in 2014. K12 Inc. has been the subject of legal complaints from investors about its financial statements, and from California parents concerning the company’s claims about student enrollment and schools’ academic records.

Early Reaction

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. “Congress typically doesn’t write $20 billion checks for programs without a real mandate,” she said.

But she also said the plan is very ambitious, and 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. “It’s dramatically more money than any other candidate has talked about for school choice,” Allen said.

But the National Education Association, a 3 million member union which has endorsed Clinton, quickly denounced the plan.

“Donald Trump isn’t serious about doing what’s best for our students, and he’s clueless about what works,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the NEA. “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.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reaches to shake hands with Egunjobi Songofunmi during a meeting with students and educators before a speech on school choice on Thursday at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in Cleveland.--Evan Vucci/AP

Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.