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Where Will Trump Go Next on Choice? Watch These Three Groups of Students

By Alyson Klein — February 06, 2018 7 min read
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Want to know where the White House and Congress might go next on school choice? Watch three populations that the federal government has a special responsibility for: children of military personnel, Native American students, and kids living in the District of Columbia.

President Donald Trump ran on creating a $20 billion voucher program, but so far, Republicans in Congress aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to make that a reality. That’s partly because fears from many in the GOP about federal overreach—even in the service of school choice, a policy that most Republicans favor.

But focusing on these particular groups is a different story.

“What is appropriate is for the federal government to advance choice for populations where the federal government has a special obligation,” said Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center on Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

There are several proposals and pieces of legislation seeking to offer Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, to military-connected or Native students. In fact, there’s some speculation that this could even be a part of President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, which is expected to be released soon.

The problem? Many groups that would be directly impacted by these proposals aren’t clamoring for a big school choice initiative, their advocates say.

“Conservative think tanks are trying to solve problems that families and communities aren’t asking them to solve through school choice,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “When you talk to stakeholders, you don’t hear, ‘Please provide our families with more educational options;' they want their own schools to be better. They are not looking for an alternative. It’s a solution without a problem.”

Here’s a quick round-up of proposals to watch, and a look at what advocates for the students who would be affected by them think:

Education savings accounts for the Bureau of Indian Education

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill in last year that would offer Education Savings Accounts, which could be used for tutoring, private school tuition, and other educational expenses, to Native American K-12 students living on Indian reservations. The idea is to offer an alternative to BIE schools, which face serious problems. Under McCain’s proposal, states with existing ESA programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada—would administer the accounts.

Several national and state groups—including the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization started by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—have lauded the proposal.

But Ahniwake Rose, the executive director of the National Indian Education Association, worries that such a change could end up diverting resources from the already strapped BIE schools.

“They would be pulling dollars out of something that’s already underfunded,” she said

And she noted that, right now, there aren’t many private school options on reservations. She’d like to see a proposal that requires much more consultation with tribal communities.

“We knew that they would be looking at [Bureau of Indian Education] schools as any opportunity to create an experiment,” on choice, Rose said. The federal government has “been experimenting on our school districts for hundreds of years ... We know nothing works in Indian country unless Native people are a part of it.”

That doesn’t mean she’s opposed to all forms of choice, especially options that are developed in partnership the people they aim to serve. There are promising ideas, like charter schools that offer cultural immersion for Native American students, and online Advanced Placement courses, she said,.

Using Impact Aid Dollars to Offer ESAs to Military-Connected and Native American Students

The $1.3 billion Impact Aid program helps school districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation.

The Heritage Foundation released a proposal last year to direct all Impact Aid funds to ESAs for students, rather than to the districts. The proposal appears to have gotten some attention from the White House and could be introduced as a bill soon. Burke pointed to a survey from Ed Choice, a school choice advocacy organization showing that about two-thirds of military families support the idea of vouchers.

“We really do see this as a national security issue. If we’re losing members of our Armed Services because of the lackluster district schools that their kids will have to attend, that’s a real problem,” Burke said.

But groups representing military families and Impact Aid districts—including the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Officers Association of America, National Military Family Association, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, and the Military Impacted Schools Association—say this would hurt public schools serving vulnerable populations.

“Proposals to divert Impact Aid from schools that educate concentrations of military-connected students are short sighted and will only reduce opportunities for all students in these school districts,” they said in a statement released in December. (Read the full statement here.)

Using Pentagon Funds to Create a Voucher Program for Military Kids

There’s speculation that the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress could push to create a school choice program using Pentagon dollars, that would be operated by the Defense Department. For instance, legislation introduced Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., would create a pilot program on at least five bases. Military families would be eligible for scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary and $12,000 for high school.

There have also been efforts to add similar language to defense bills. So far, none of them have passed.

Advocates for military families say they’ll take a close and cautious look at any proposals released.

Mary M. Keller, the president and CEO of the Military Child Education, said that her organization is in favor of “informed choice” for military parents. But it wants to make sure choice proposals won’t leave out students with special needs, and will benefit low-income families as well as wealthier students. She also wants to see significant oversight and transparency so that parents can make an informed decision.

What’s more, Keller has big practical questions, about things like transportation and how vouchers would work if a child switched schools in the middle of the year because his or her parents’ assignment changed.

Education Savings Accounts for the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia already has a private school voucher program and a blooming charter sector.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wants to go even further. He and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. have introduced legislation that would offer ESAs to every student in Washington, D.C. That means parents would each get $9,500 annually that could be used as a voucher for private school tuition, or taken to a charter or public school.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress, is adamantly opposed to the idea.

“Who is Ted Cruz to tell the D.C. government how to spend their own taxpayer funds on education, a great priority in this city?,” she said in a statement. “It is one thing for the federal government to meddle with D.C.'s local affairs and set up a private school voucher program with federal funds; it is quite another to force a local jurisdiction to use its own finite funds to pay for an unaccountable voucher program, taking away funding from our traditional public schools and public charter schools.”

Bonus: The emphasis on these populations doesn’t mean that the school choice community has necessarily given up on something with broader reach.

The American Federation for Children, for one, would still like to see Congress and the administration move forward on a federal tax credit scholarship—something lawmakers opted not to include in the recent tax overhaul legislation.

“We’ll see if it gathers legs this year,” said John Schillling, the president of the advocacy group, which was founded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

School choice is one of the biggest topics we cover. See a sample of our top stories: