Could Potential Trump Education Plan Make Inequality Greater Again?

When it comes to education policy, Donald Trump’s positions are largely a mystery. But here is what we know so far: he hates the Common Core, and he regularly flirts with the idea of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. There. That’s the whole of Trump’s plan to make American Education Great Again. Unfortunately for The Donald, improving America’s schools will be far more complicated than eliminating high-quality standards state-by-state and downsizing a federal bureaucracy.

Yet, what Donald Trump lacks in experience or expertise, he more than compensates, he claims, by hiring the very best people. Enter New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the favorites to be Trump’s running mate, and whose education policies would be a terrible national model for a Trump Administration to pick up.

The mere thought of Governor Christie driving national education policy is enough to make almost any teacher shudder. Remember when he said that teachers’ unions deserved a “punch in the face?

As troubling as that comment is, Governor Christie’s latest idea — so called school “Funding Fairness — is particularly odious. At first glance, the proposal could be attractive: ensuring all students receive the same baseline level of state funding. In practice, however, this new funding model would amount to taking millions of dollars from school districts with highly concentrated student poverty, and redistributing those funds across more affluent districts. As a result, many urban, high-poverty districts could lose millions.

In other words, Governor Christie’s big idea to make public education great in New Jersey is to take millions of dollars from students in need,  and give them to students who are better off. That idea is completely backward and unfair.

But should Trump and Christie make it to the White House, this profoundly inequitable approach to school funding could become national policy.

Congress pushed something similar— Title I Portability — last year during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In effect, portability would have changed the distribution rules for Title-I, Part A. Currently, a district’s Title I funds are marginally increased as its concentration of student poverty increases. Like the marginal rates in our tax code, the per-student Title-I allocation increases in districts with a greater proportion of students living in poverty.

Had it passed, Title I portability would have ignored the effects of concentrations of poverty on student learning, and opted instead to treat all low-income students the same and provide them with the same amount of financial support whether they go to school in Detroit or the Hollywood Hills. A colleague and I wrote a short brief demonstrating that portability would take from the poor to give to the rich. After a subsequent public outcry, the idea was scrapped in the bipartisan deal that eventually became law.

While the portability proposal would have harmed poor and minority students, if Trump were to adopt Governor Christie’s so-called “Funding Fairness” proposal and apply it nationally, it would be even worse for disadvantaged students. Unlike portability, this proposal would provide every student in the country the same amount of federal aid, regardless of whether they were low-income or not. This would stretch the near $15 billion of Title I funds well-beyond their limit, and would be disastrous for low-income students and students of color.

As the graph below shows (click to enlarge), the districts with the highest poverty rates would lose on average over $200 per student, while the most affluent districts would gain over $220 per student. Nationally, districts with over 50 percent of their students eligible for free-or reduced-priced lunch would lose nearly $400,000 on average. Districts with over 75 percent student poverty would lose almost $800,000 on average.

Trump Christie graph 1

The results are far more serious in large urban school districts with high rates of student poverty. For example, over 85 percent of students in Philadelphia are eligible for free-and reduced-priced lunch, but this proposal would take away over $1,300 per student. Just outside Philadelphia, in Lower Merion School District, a district where only 8 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the district would receive an addition $250 per student, despite its relative advantage.

Trump Christie table 1

Shifting money from high-poverty districts to low-poverty ones is obviously unfair. But it gets worse.

As the graph below shows, should this proposal somehow become federal law, funds would flow out of districts serving high percentages of students of color, and toward whiter districts. Simply put, as a district’s percentage of black or Hispanic students increases, their per-pupil funding decreases significantly. The districts with the highest concentrations of students of color would receive around $230 less per student. On the other hand, school districts would receive more money as the percentage of white students increases.

Trump Christsie graph 2

In short, “Funding Fairness” takes money from underserved communities and gives it to those with more advantages. Simply put, it is the opposite of equity and contradicts decades of evidence clearly demonstrating that disadvantaged students need more support, not less.

Who knows if Christie’s proposal will move forward in New Jersey, let alone be taken national by a possible future President Trump.  But as the numbers make clear, it’s a bad policy that should be soundly rejected before it ever has a chance to harm our nation’s schools.