The Good And Bad About Donald Trump's "School Choice" Proposals
Donald Trump has released his plan for the federal government’s role in education. It’s a generalized vision of school choice, which on it’s face is fantastic. But a deeper dive into specifics, like any deep dive into Trump’s policies, leaves plenty of opportunity for the goodness of the idea to be exploited for personal gain. His website only lists four proposals, and he delivered some specifics in a speech in Cleveland last week. While the details are generally good, it doesn't provide an semblance of a good model of school choice for the States, much less making a decent argument that the federal government should be involved at all in education.
PROPOSAL: Mr. Trump’s first budget will immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice.
Besides the inherent confusion of what additional means when it’s reprioritizing existing federal dollars, this policy is an example of how not to do things. In a speech last Thursday, Trump said that these plans would favor states provide school choice options. This arrangement is eerily similar to the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare that was struck down in NFIB v. Sebelius in 2012. While the legal status of these grants may not be the same, the stated enforcement of the policy leads to the same perverse incentives. States will be required to meet the conditions of Trump's block grants in order to receive the money. Much like Common Core, these standards are a well intentioned mechanism that gives more power to those in Washington. The other issue with this policy is that funding isn't the problem. Since 1970, we've increased spending 200% per student. True school choice, where each child is funded the same and the only barriers to entry are each school's requirements, is not achieved through more funding from Washington. It's achieved by supporting children on a city and state level by removing funding based on zip code.
PROPOSAL: As President, Mr. Trump will establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty.
This idea is a good idea, but it's unclear why school choice should only apply to children in poverty. There's proof that students who come from poor schools to better performing schools in urban areas see much larger developmental progress than those who are stuck in poor performing schools. Another problem with this proposal is not a policy; it's simply a talking point aimed at lower income voters who feel their children's education is a failure. The last line, "each state will develop it's own formula, but the dollars follow the student" is the right idea. But if this paragraph left out any mention of economic class, it would be a great summation of universal school choice.
PROPOSAL: To achieve this long-term goal of school choice, Mr. Trump make this a shared national mission – to bring hope to every child in every city in this land.
This proposal is simply pandering and couched language that has little chance of being effective. It also has little chance of actually happening. A shared national mission can mean a few different things. Last Thursday, Trump used the oldest presidential line in the book to describe this national mission:
"If we can put a man on the moon, dig out the Panama Canal, and win two world wars, then I have no doubt that we as a nation can provide school choice to every disadvantaged child in America"
Do we really want a massive federal project akin to the Apollo missions for education? On what planet would this be effective, warranted, or acceptable? The federal government has failed to make any meaningful improvements to our education system. A massive public works project is not a reasonable solution to the problem. Does anyone actually think Democrats across the country would take his proposals seriously when he uses the bully pulpit to get them to elect school choice friendly judges? Does anyone expect him to campaign in 50 states when he barely has a presidential campaign office in 50 states? Maybe it's not what Trump means. But like with anything else he says, we should take it to his hyperbolic conclusion.
PROPOSAL: Mr. Trump will also support merit-pay for teachers
This is the cleanest, least controversial policy. Most Americans believe that better teachers should be rewarded. A poll by EducationNext in 2015 found a majority of Americans believe merit pay for teachers is a good idea, with a large plurality agreeing or having no opinion either way. However, a majority of Americans, upon being informed of teacher salary and benefits, do not believe that teachers should be paid more. Merit pay has a larger support that general increases in pay. This suggestion has the best likelihood of being a policy that both sides of the aisle agree upon in some form. Of the entire document, this is the best portion. Unfortunately, it is only indirectly related to school choice. It may incentivize the best teachers to go to the best financial option and classroom environment. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee this process will improve choice for the students.
On the whole, the fact that the most publicized and talked about election in human history is having a discussion on school choice is great. What isn't great is that the person promoting the discussion has had any credibility around education destroyed due to Trump University's shenanigans. In order for school choice to be adopted nationally, the message must be delivered with sound data and by someone who has an awareness of what good and bad educational solutions are. While we will get a set of decent sounding proposals, they won't be adopted due to their method of delivery. It's up to everyone on the local level to advocate and support universal school choice. Only by continuing to show the undeniable proof that school choice leads to better outcomes will universal choice topple the kingdom of unionized zip code-based education.