By Deep Sran
What will a Trump presidency mean for K-12 education? Trump’s campaign proposals focus on “school choice,” which means making it easier for students to use public money to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter and private schools. Whether these proposals actually increase the number of charter schools and vouchers for private schools will be up to the individual states.
Federal influence over K-12 education is limited
Public education is a state power. The federal government has virtually no direct control over K-12 education and contributes very little to support it. For example, in FY 2014 (the most recent available data), K-12 federal assistance to Virginia amounted to about $660 million, or less than 5 percent of Virginia’s K-12 budget. Similarly, less than 2 percent of the current LCPS budget comes from the federal government. Of the more than $620 billion spent nationally on public education each year, only about $54 billion (or 9 percent) comes from the federal government. Given that public schools are funded and controlled by state and local governments, the federal government can exercise influence only by using financial incentives.
Since state education funding is inadequate for all that public schools do, however, the federal government is able to use incentives to exert real influence over the states’ education policies. The No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced a standardized testing regime that shaped the direction of public education, is an example of how the small federal contribution to public education can exert an outsized influence.
President-elect Trump has proposed using $20 billion in existing federal education funds as grants that would be awarded to states promoting school choice. This fund would amount to about 3 percent of the total state and federal investment in K-12 public investment. Trump’s website identifies three forms of school choice: (1) charter schools, (2) vouchers (i.e. public money) for private schools, including faith-based private schools, or (3) magnet public schools (Loudoun’s Academy of Science and Fairfax’s Thomas Jefferson High School are magnet schools). If school choice grants are enacted, states would not be required to promote school choice (unless they pursue a school choice grant). As such, the individual states will decide the extent to which Trump’s support of school choice shapes the direction of public education.
Arguments for and against school choice
Supporters point to at least three arguments for “school choice.” First, more publicly-funded choice could accelerate the pace of experimentation and innovation in K-12 education—by making charter, magnet and private schools accessible to more students—and increase the chances that new, improved instructional practices and tools will be employed. Second, by giving traditional public schools more competition, choice will drive existing schools to improve or close. More choice and competition are offered as a better way to improve student learning and to reduce the achievement gap. Third, since parents have a fundamental right under our federal Constitution to make decisions about how to raise their children, choice supporters argue that parents should have the right to choose where their children go to school. This could also mean greater equity, as choice would be available to more families that can’t afford private schools today. In short, school choice brings market forces to K-12 education, with the twist of possibly promoting equity.
Critics of school choice argue that these proposals are veiled attempts to dismantle public education altogether for ideological or sectarian reasons. They argue that school choice undermines public schools because it would mean less funding for public schools and lead to a concentration in public schools of the most difficult and resource-intensive students, as charters and private schools would be able to avoid, directly or indirectly, having to enroll or retain the students who need the most support.
The Supreme Court has ruled that citizens do not have a right to direct how their tax dollars are spent (except indirectly, by voting for their representatives). School choice would be an exception to this principle. The more serious constitutional problem when vouchers are used by parents for faith-based schools is that public money is being used to promote religion in contravention of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. These matters have been, and will continue to be, litigated.
The next four years
So what does all of this mean over the next four years? It is difficult to know at this point. Like many Trump policy proposals, the proposals around K-12 education are thin. But, he has selected Betsy DeVos, who is a strong supporter of school choice programs, as his Secretary of Education. And his education proposals will likely have the support of Congress, as he is not proposing to increase the education budget and Republicans generally support school choice. In light of this, I predict that the $20 billion school choice fund will be enacted. And, if the fund goes into effect, I predict that states that already have a strong charter presence will be more likely to pursue federal choice funds than states like Virginia, where school choice proposals face more resistance.
School choice advocates are right about three things: existing public schools should be better for and to students; school choice should not be reserved only for those who can afford it; and, more new ideas and experimentation in K-12 education is good for student learning. I support increased school choice because I know from experience that charter and private schools have more freedom to test and implement new ideas. But, they have this freedom because they don’t have to do everything public schools do.
I am not persuaded (but am open to evidence) that taking funds from public schools and relying on market forces is the best way to serve the students already in traditional public schools. Because I believe public schools will always be where the vast majority of American children learn, I believe high quality public schools must be the primary goal of education policy. School choice is only an indirect means to achieve this goal. Yet, it is worth pursuing on the small-scale represented by the Trump proposal because experimentation can lead to better practices. I would not increase federal school choice funding, however, until two conditions are met. First, there must be evidence that school choice increases student learning and happiness, and reduces the achievement gap, beyond the gains that could be expected when private and charter schools draw away a select group of students and teachers. Second, if there is evidence of real progress independent of selection effects, there must be a plan to share what is learned with traditional public schools so their students see the benefits of experimentation and innovation.
[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]