Blog: The Educated Reporter

What’s Ahead for School Choice in the Trump Era?

If anyone doubted that school choice would be a top educational priority for the Trump administration, the Republican president’s first address to a joint session of Congress laid that question to rest.

“I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” he declared. “These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

The big question now is how the Republican-led Congress will respond. What policies might members of Congress pursue? What is feasible from both a political and financial standpoint? Also, how will states and local jurisdictions respond to a new federal initiative?

For those hoping President Trump would flesh out the “how” of expanding school choice in his speech to Congress, there was little on offer. Even a statement issued after the address by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — herself a longtime school choice advocate — offered no clues about what such a choice proposal might look like.

During his campaign, Trump proposed the creation of a $20 billion school choice program for children living in poverty. As described at the time, it would be a “block grant” for states, handing them wide discretion in how to proceed. Candidate Trump also made clear he wanted to “reprioritize” existing federal dollars, rather than add to the federal pot for K-12 education spending. Since the election, the president has not publicly discussed this particular strategy, nor has his education secretary.

Several Potential Strategies

In an Education Week blog post, reporters Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa identify several potential strategies the administration and Congress may pursue to boost choice, including making federal Title I dollars “portable” so they follow impoverished children to their school of choice, tax-credit scholarships, expanding the existing voucher program in the District of Columbia, and/or beefing up federal aid for charter schools.

The first of those ideas, Title I “portability,” appears to be most closely aligned with what Trump mentioned during his campaign. But it may be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where Democrats still hold 48 Senate seats and even some Republicans have misgivings.

“The Senate rejected a similar program back in 2015, when Republicans had bigger margins in the chamber, in part because rural Republicans didn’t think it would do much to help fix their schools,” the Education Week reporters explain.

‘First in Her Family’

The idea of a tax credit scholarship program may also be on the mind of the Trump administration. After all, one of Mr. Trump’s invited guests at the joint session was Denisha Merriweather, who sat with First Lady Melania Trump.

“As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice,” Trump said in his address. “But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning … with the help of a tax credit and a scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college.”

Emma Brown of The Washington Post notes that, politically, the tax credit strategy may prove especially attractive.

“One of the easiest ways Trump could make good on his promise to expand that access is to create a federal tax credit that incentivizes corporations to donate to state programs such as Florida’s,” she writes. “Such a credit could be embedded in a broader tax code overhaul that would need a simple majority in Congress to pass.”

Brown notes that 17 states currently have such tax credit programs, which typically allow individuals and companies to donate a share of the state taxes they owe to privately administered scholarship programs. Since the money does not come directly from the government, such programs have generally withstood legal challenges on the separation of church and state, unlike some voucher programs.

Caitlin Emma of Politico reports that a federal tax credit is under active consideration by the Trump administration. However, she cautions that it may spark resistance, and not just from Democrats.

“Some experts think it would be more politically palatable than the $20 billion school voucher plan that Trump pitched on the campaign trail,” she notes. “But the idea already has critics on the left and the right — public school advocates say it’s a voucher program in disguise and conservatives worry about increasing the federal role in education and pressuring states to standardize state tax credit programs.”

Research May Complicate Voucher Push

Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report is among the journalists to note this week that recent research on private-school voucher programs may not be encouraging for those looking to beef up that approach.

“A series of studies on the effectiveness of voucher programs in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio — the largest voucher programs in the country — do much to discredit their effectiveness,” she writes. “Students who won publicly funded vouchers to escape their failing public schools and enroll in private schools in Louisiana, for example, are doing worse academically than those who weren’t awarded vouchers and remained in low-performing schools, according to two different studies.”

For more discussion of what’s ahead on school choice, check out the video from the Education Writers Association panel, “School Choice Policy and Politics in the Trump Era.”