In yet another illustration of his selective embrace of conservative precepts, President-Elect Trump has proposed an expanded federal role in school choice. His nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, a long-time leader in the school choice movement, reaffirms this campaign commitment and foreshadows a difficult choice for Republicans in Congress.
On the one hand, DeVos could use the purse strings of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to significantly expand the school options available to families. On the other hand, a federal role in another area of education policy – traditionally (and constitutionally) reserved for the states – asks conservative school choice proponents to swallow a bitter pill. The new administration will need congressional Republicans to support its ambitions for school choice, but they should not sacrifice federalism on the altar of school choice.
No matter how carefully designed or who is at the helm, introducing a federal role in national school choice policies is a Pandora’s box. Some believe it would be possible to walk the line. Former Bellwether partner and current AEI resident fellow Andy Smarick recently suggested federal policymakers could use the existing federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) as a model for supporting school choice without a wanton expansion of the federal role.
The CSP is probably the best example of how USED has supported the growth of the charter sector and the closest proxy for a parallel federal investment in school choice. But it’s important not to romanticize it. Along with other high-profile federal grant programs (e.g. Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, Investing in Innovation), the CSP grant has allowed the federal government to weigh in on questions previously reserved for state and local policymakers.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence talk to “60 Minutes.” Photo: CBS News
The Veep-stakes are over! The pick is in. Mike Pence, the sitting Governor of Indiana, will run as Trump’s Vice President. Although he has only been Governor for a few years, Pence also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Putting those records together, we can get a sense of what the Pence pick could mean for public education.
Tough sledding for civil rights. Pence’s stance on equal rights is pretty clear. Everyone remembers the law he signed permitting individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. So, many federal student protections could be in jeopardy, including President Obama’s executive action on bathroom use for transgender students. In a similar vein, Pence strongly supports states’ rights and local control. He likely would advocate for reducing (perhaps even further) the federal footprint in education. This is bad news for low-income students and students of color who frequently receive low-quality educations and depend on federal support.
Funding redistribution (but not to support low-income students). If his most recent budget in Indiana is any indication, Pence certainly feels that something needs to be done to improve school funding in this country. Unfortunately, however, he seems to think wealthier districts need an even bigger slice of the school funding pie.
Charter expansion. In addition to increasing funding for charters broadly, Pence also supported theso-called “Freedom to Teach” bill.The idea is to help provide teachers with the flexibility they need to innovate in their classrooms. Some teachers and union representatives argue that they already have that freedom. Instead, they believe that the bill is designed to limit union power and invite private entities to run public schools.
Vouchers Vouchers Vouchers. For years Pence has been a vocal proponent of school vouchers and expanding the use of public funds to pay for private education. Last year he helped to shepherd a bill to raise the voucher limit on funds available for elementary school students. A Trump/Pence White House may provide the strongest support for expanding voucher programs in decades.
Preschool a priority (kind of). It’s a far cry from universal pre-K, but Pence was able to expand Indiana’s pre-school program. He also recently committed to expanding the program further with or without federal support. It is important to note, however, that Pence previously refused millions of dollars of federal support, and only seemed interested in them now that he is up for reelection.
In education policy, Pence sticks to the party-line. For that reason, his selection should make many conservatives happy. But students and teachers should be on high alert. In a Trump/Pence White House, it would take a watchful eye and strong advocacy to preserve critical federal protections for vulnerable students, ensure low-income students get their fair share of funding, and prioritize students’ needs over states’ rights.
The Times Picayune recently published an article that begins with an assertion that “One third of Louisiana’s voucher students are enrolled at private schools doing such a poor job of educating them that the schools have been barred from taking new voucher students…” One need not read much further to conclude that the author of the article is, at the very least, skeptical of the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). Unfortunately, the article also perpetuates some misinformation about the program. While working on this program at the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE), I spent countless hours setting the record straight for confused families and schools and know the importance of making sure accurate information gets to them.
The LSP gives low-income families, whose children previously attended a failing public school, the option to enroll in a participating private school of their choice. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling allowing school vouchers, programs like the LSP stir controversy because they allow families to use public funds to enroll their children in private schools. The controversy often leads to confusion, which hinders families’ abilities to make fully informed decisions. That is why I want to correct three points made in this article that I believe are misleading.