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What might school choice look like under Trump?

Supporters of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice anticipate a friendlier climate with President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos to serve as secretary of Education.

Susan Walsh/AP
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, sits with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington Dec. 1.

Supporters of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice anticipate a friendlier climate with President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos to serve as secretary of Education.

Q: In what ways can the government support school choice?

Vouchers offer a portion of public education dollars for qualifying students to use at private (religious and nonreligious) schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run independently and that fill their seats through a lottery of interested students. About 13 percent are run by for-profit companies, with the remainder run by a wide variety of nonprofits. In exchange for independence, they have to meet requirements set by a charter-authorizing body in their state or local area.

Tax credits, tax deductions, and education savings accounts (ESAs) are other ways that states can channel public money to parents for educational expenses.

Q: How widely are these options used?

Voucher programs in 14 states and Washington, D.C., serve an estimated 175,000 students. At least 6,700 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia enroll an estimated 3 million students. And at least 733,000 students benefit from tax credits, tax deductions, or ESAs.

To put these numbers in perspective, about 50 million students from pre-K to Grade 12 are in public schools and 5.4 million in private schools.

Q: Why is there disagreement over school choice?

Proponents of vouchers and tax policies that fund private schooling argue that for the types of students they often serve – low-income children, students with disabilities, and students in low-performing schools – it’s a good investment to let parents choose a setting they think will best serve their children’s needs.

Opponents argue that public dollars should be reserved for public institutions, and in the case of vouchers, some state Constitutions prohibit tax dollars from going to private religious groups.

Charter schools generally have enjoyed some bipartisan support as a way to experiment with educational innovations. But when they grow to the point of drawing away significant funding from school districts, some opponents say they destabilize those districts and cause important educational services to be cut. And if they are not regulated closely enough, the quality of those schools may not be what was promised to families.

Charter school backers, meanwhile, argue that traditional school districts are often bloated with bureaucracy. They also say the presence of charter schools enables families to “vote with their feet,” which in turn pressures those districts to demonstrate that they can provide a high-quality education.

“There’s good-faith disagreements about how choice plays out,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Letting students choose among district schools or take a course online are easy forms of choice for many people to accept. But “when you talk about charters and vouchers, it’s disruptive, so people have stronger feelings about them,” he says. Yet that also offers “a real opportunity to communities, as they work these things through, to build bridges and find common ground.”

Q: What influence could the Trump administration have?

Mr. Trump said during the campaign that he would give states $20 billion to support low-income students attending the school of their choice, including a private school. It’s highly unlikely that he could get Congress to go along with such an idea, however, since even some Republicans have opposed broad proposals to let the money follow students, particularly to private schools.

But Ms. DeVos, in addition to having the power of the bully pulpit, could potentially use regulatory authority as secretary of Education to support states that want to direct more dollars toward various choice programs.

On the other hand, those who have been trying to build bipartisan support for charter schools worry that Trump’s negative comments about African-Americans and Latinos during the campaign could create a backlash and weaken support among progressives, Education Week reports.

Q: Does school choice improve academic achievement?

The effectiveness of voucher and charter school programs has long been debated, and pro and con camps both cite studies to back up their points of view. (See, for instance, this report by the former Friedman Foundation, now EdChoice, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” …. and this critique of the report by Christopher Lubienski of the University of Illinois.)

There’s no strong consensus that vouchers broadly provide a big boost academically – though some well-regarded studies have pointed to such effects. Nor is there consensus that they harm students or fail to give some academic advantage in various cases.

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