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Trump budget would abandon public education for private choice

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump participate in a round-table discussion during a visit to Saint Andrew Catholic School in Miami. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Trump budget would abandon public education for private choice

The Trump administration has announced its plan to transform education funding as we know it. The new budget proposal takes aim at a host of elementary, secondary and higher education programs that serve needy students, redirecting those funds toward K-12 school choice in the form of vouchers, tax credits and charter schools.

Public schools that enroll a large percentage of low-income students stand to lose significant chunks of their budget, as well as a number of specialized federal programs for their students. At the same time, the Trump budget will incentivize families to leave not only these schools, but public schools in general.

As a scholar of education law and policy, I note that my recent research on state voucher and charter programs shows that the loss of both money and core constituents proposed by this new budget could throw public education into a downward spiral.

The proposed changes in federal funding

Through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government currently sends US$16 billion a year to public schools to provide extra resources for low-income students. While Title I is the single largest federal grant, the federal government spends more than twice that amount through a multitude of other programs. School systems like those in Miami, Milwaukee, Houston, San Antonio and Detroit get anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of their funding from the federal government.

The new budget proposes about $4 billion in cuts to programs like literacy for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency, class-size reduction, and after-school and summer programs.

The Trump administration promises the money is not really gone; it’s just coming back under different policies. The administration plans to add $1 billion to Title I, but the additional money comes with a big catch: States must spend that money on school choice. To access the new money, states and districts would have to adopt student enrollment policies that allow families to choose their own schools and take public money with them.

This would fundamentally change the way states have funded schools and assigned students for the past century. While choice policies have significantly grown in recent years, the vast majority of districts continue to assign students to a public school based on where they live. If families choose to leave the district to attend another school (i.e., a charter school), local school funds remain with the district. A substantial chunk, if not all, of state and federal dollars typically stay with the district as well.

Trump’s proposal would have all of the local, state and federal dollars follow the child, regardless of the school the student attends. Choice advocates argue that this gets the government out of the driver’s seat and brings market forces to bear on public schools. Competition, they reason, will improve public schools and, thus, benefit everyone.

In January, Georgia Charter Schools Association and GeorgiaCAN sponsored a school choice town hall to discuss school choice implications for minority families in Georgia. Branden Camp/AP Images for Georgia Charter Schools Association

The threat to low-income schools

Studies have shown that while decreased student enrollment does reduce some public school costs, other costs remain fixed. School buses drive the same routes. Air conditioners run just as much. And, quite often, the school still needs the same number of teachers. When states fail to account for these realities, they can drive school districts into bankruptcy.

Under Trump’s proposal, when a student enrolls in a charter school, that student will take not only federal funding with them, but all of the state and local funding that previously supported the local school. This would effectively reduce the funding for the local school without reducing its costs.

The effect on high-poverty districts could be catastrophic. On average, school districts serving predominantly low-income students already receive significantly less state and local funding than others. In Nevada, for instance, predominantly middle-income schools spend $10,400 per pupil, whereas schools serving just a moderate number of low-income students spend only $6,100 per pupil. Taking more money away from needy schools would likely widen these gaps.

Arne Duncan gives a speech at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. in 2015. US Department of Education/Flickr, CC BY

States, of course, can stick with the traditional rules for spending federal Title I money, but if they want additional money from Trump, they have to agree to his choice proposal. History has shown that states are typically willing to do anything to get new federal education money, even when it’s a bad idea. In 2009, Secretary Arne Duncan offered even less money for states to adopt controversial teacher evaluation systems and the Common Core. While those policies imploded within a few years, more than 40 states were initially quick to take the deal.

The threat to public schools in general

The administration plans to go beyond the education budget alone. Although it is holding back the details for now, the administration is close to proposing an entire new tax scheme to fund private education. This new program would give individuals and businesses tax credits for “donating” to organizations that pay for students’ tuition at private schools.

In the past, states have experimented with traditional school voucher programs, which are typically limited to small numbers of low-income students. The new tax credit system, by contrast, could be used by states to fund wealthier students – and could be opened up to enrollment at religious schools as well.

As a result, enrollment in these programs has risen dramatically in comparison to traditional vouchers. In states like Florida and Indiana, the size of these programs quadrupled in just a few years.

Secretary DeVos visits SLAM Charter School in Miami. US Department of Education/Flickr, CC BY

A wolf in school choice clothing

On the surface, these policies are just about moving money around – freeing up traditional public school funding to spur growth in charter and private schools. Below the surface, however, I believe the new budget undermines confidence in public education.

North Carolina offers a cautionary tale. A few years ago, North Carolina slashed its traditional education budget by 20 percent, while doubling its expenditures on charter schools. Since then, North Carolina’s public schools have fallen from being among the finest in the nation to some of the worst.

Policies like these misunderstand why we have public education in the first place. Our government institutions have long funded public schools because they produce benefits for society as a whole: productive citizens, social values, shared experiences and an effective workforce. Individuals surely benefit, but the pursuit of these societal goals is the reason that our states provide education.

Trump’s effort to reshape school financing reflects a vision of education that is not public at all. This new vision is all about individuals, ignoring what may happen to our societal values, public schools and the neediest students who will be left behind.