Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a small group roundtable held at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy on Thursday.

Trump's $20 billion school choice proposal for inner-city students

In Ohio, Donald Trump proposed spending $20 billion on grants for inner-city children to attend a school of their choice if he’s elected. But would it attract minority groups whom he’s failed to captivate thus far?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump laid out a $20 billion plan intended to boost school choice opportunities for families living in impoverished areas on Thursday – a move some have deemed a push to appeal to minority voters after a campaign in which Mr. Trump's comments on race have turned many against him.

Speaking to a predominately African-American crowd at a predominantly African-American charter school in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump vowed to direct federal money into a program that would allow families in low-income communities to send their children to a school of their choice. This move would allow parents to opt for a different school – public, private, or charter – when the one in their neighborhood seems inadequate or unable to meet a student's needs, factors that already drive many parents to seek alternative schooling options.

Such a policy could carry a bit of bipartisan appeal, attracting Republicans in favor of privatization and others seeking to increase opportunities for those in underserved communities. 

“As president, I will establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty,” Trump said at the school, which has around 350 students ranging from kindergarteners to eighth graders, according to The New York Times. “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.”

Funding for the program would come from existing federal spending, he said, and be given through block grants to the states.

His support of charter schools is far from a revolutionary stance for Republican candidates, who frequently applaud school choice. Yet his proposal may be an attempt to shift the campaign's tone toward minority voters, after months of criticism that Trump has made racially-tinged comments about groups from Mexican Americans to Muslim Americans. The trip to Cleveland comes days after a speech to a predominantly African-American audience at a nondenominational church in Detroit, Mich., where he told listeners that "we need a civil rights agenda for our time."

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has also voiced support for charter schools, but more tepidly. Trump's plan places greater emphasis on complete school choice and vouchers, while Mrs. Clinton has criticized charters run by for-profit management companies, as well as those that she says fail to support more challenging students. 

Others have argued that complete freedom in school choice via a voucher system strips traditional public schools of funding, harming schools that are already suffering financially and academically.

“If any president wanted to invest $2 billion in public education for black and brown and poor children, it would be a great thing and it would go a long way towards repairing the inequalities that are in the public school system,” Leigh Dingerson, a consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “I’m not sure that Trump’s argument that school choice is the way to go is going to pull a lot of folks.”

In particular, many are opposed to the concept of school vouchers, Ms. Dingerson says, which allow families to apply government money toward private school fees and fall more in-line with Trump’s latest proposal.

“I think it jars Democratic voters for sure,” she says of Trump's voucher-based plan. “I think that is a pretty bright line.”

When Republicans proposed an amendment that would add vouchers to the "Every Child Achieves Act," a piece of legislation that intended to address the shortcoming of the federal government's highly criticized education law known as "No Child Left Behind," Democrats came out in opposition. 

“Vouchers undermine the basic goals of public education by allowing funding that is designated for our most at-risk students to be re-routed to private schools,” Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's education committee, wrote in remarks prepared for a speech on the floor last year. “I urge my colleagues to oppose any attempt to use federal education funds for private school vouchers.”

The act eventually passed without the inclusion of vouchers, with overwhelming bipartisan support.

In terms of Trump's new offer, minority parents may question the sincerity of Trump’s stated commitment to their families.

“This one speech can’t clear that up for me,” Emmalena Alexander, an African-American woman whose son attends the Cleveland school where Trump spoke, told The New York Times. “That still leaves a nasty taste.”

While parents across the board hope to find high quality schools for their children, many won’t be swayed by a plan that appears centered around a voucher-system, Dingerson says.

"I expect that people recognize that when you start separating and sorting kids across different kinds of school systems, you’re increasingly segregating a charter system and you’re creating winners and losers in a competitive market model," she says. "That is not traditionally been something that helps black and brown communities in the past."

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