Plans to expand school choice from President Donald Trump may be generating a lot of attention—but they should be taken with a dose of political reality, and not obscure other key issues.
That was one of the main messages from a panel of K-12 advocates discussing the changing politics of education at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association here on Wednesday. Left- and right-leaning advocates sparred about the hypothetical impact of $9.2 billion in cuts to the U.S. Department of Education proposed by Trump last week, and whether the Republican-controlled Congress is interested in the GOP president’s pitch for a $1.4 billion school choice initiative.
There was a general consensus, however, that in the age of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, education reporters would do well to see how—or if—national debates impact things such as school choice and spending in states and local communities. After all, only about 10 percent of funding for public schools comes from the federal government.
While states and local communities should offer as many quality choices to parents through things like education savings accounts and vouchers, that doesn’t mean choice advocates should welcome federal initiatives to expand choice, said Lindsey Burke, the education policy director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that backs limited government. States are moving at their own pace and should be left to do so, she added.
“It’s hard to reconcile the creation of a new program with reducing federal intervention in education,” Burke said.
And separate from the merits of the Trump school choice proposals, they face “uphill battles” in Congress, where Republicans are eager to assert their prerogatives over the budget, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at Harvard University and a former K-12 adviser to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
“There is not overwhelming Republican support for major federal efforts to expand school choice from Washington,” West said.
Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, said there might be too much focus on school choice even in this environment, given the relatively small number of children choice programs serve. But he did say that low-income children in communities that many wealthier families have abandoned have the moral and education right some forms of appropriate choice, specifically charter schools: “You can have choice and accountability.”
Burke and Jeffries also disagreed about how to think about private schools with respect to civil rights and special education. Burke emphasized that religiously affiliated private schools should have certain prerogatives with respect to the students they admit, even as they obey civil rights laws on the books. But Jeffries argued that in theory religious schools could find various justifications to discriminate inappropriately against various students.
“I think this administration is going to be a disaster for civil rights,” Jeffries said. DFER is a major proponent of charter schools, but is more guarded when it comes to vouchers. (When asked recently by Chalkbeat about its stance on vouchers, Jeffries said: “We just don’t do a lot on vouchers, and in a lot of ways vouchers are really a sideshow.)
He and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten focused many of their remarks during the panel on Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which would eliminate federal aid to teacher development and after-school programs, and also make relatively small cuts to Title I funding for disadvantaged students and for special education.
The proposed cuts from Trump would have “a very tangible impact” on children seeking to go to college and teachers seeking to get trained, Jeffries said. (Trump’s budget, however, is likely to be largely ignored by Congress, even beyond the choice proposals.)
And Weingarten said the proposals from the Trump administration to expand choice are really about changing the nature of public education from a public to a private commodity. “Are we actually going to make this an unregulated market?” she asked.
But Burke argued that many students are being failed by traditional public schools, and that they deserve new options for schooling.
With ESSA on the books, prospects for Congress to enact major education legislation in the foreseeable future are pretty slim, outside of a potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
And given the control ESSA gives to states and districts over many key policy areas, a key focus now is how they carry out the law, approved in 2015 with strong, bipartisan support. Important questions to consider include whether states will set high standards holding schools accountable, Jeffries said, and whether states and districts will intervene wisely when schools fall short.
“Are they are just going to put a letter up somewhere and say, ‘This school is a C’? Or are they going to actually do something?” Jeffries asked.
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