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Trump weighs school choice, vouchers in his education policy

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill Jan. 17, 2017 in Washington, DC.  Photo Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

The fifth in a series of articles examining major issues facing President-elect Donald Trump following his inauguration.

A Trump administration is expected to push for expanded school choice, taxpayer-funded vouchers, and more funding for charter schools, setting the stage for high-profile battles with public school advocates and teachers unions, education analysts predict.

The Senate confirmation hearing of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos grew heated Tuesday as senators questioned her credentials and support for public schools. She criticized the existing education system, saying that “parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the need of every child” and that “too many parents are denied access to the full range of options.”

Predicting education policy in a Trump administration is complicated, experts said. President-elect Donald J. Trump has outlined a vision for a smaller government, suggesting that the 38-year-old Department of Education, with a roughly $70 billion annual discretionary budget, “is massive” and “can be largely eliminated.”

“Is the president going to practice what he preached on the campaign trail, which was to get the federal government out of the business of K-12 education? Or is he going to use the leverage of the federal government to advance the kind of education he and his supporters want?” said Russ Whitehurst, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Many are looking to DeVos’ record for clues on future policy. The Michigan billionaire, whose husband’s family founded the Amway Corporation, has held no roles in public school administration. The DeVos family has funded efforts to expand school choice initiatives and charter schools in Michigan. Trump has said that a federal “school choice” policy should cover private, public, magnet and charter schools.

To achieve that, Trump has proposed using $20 billion in existing federal money to establish a block grant for states. The funding would cover 11 million students “living in absolute poverty,” Trump said during a September speech in Cleveland at a local charter school.

“I want every single inner-city child in America, who is today trapped in a failing school, to have the freedom — the civil right — to attend the school of their choice,” he said in Cleveland.

According to Trump’s campaign website, each student can receive $12,000 in “school choice funds,” as long as states also provided a combined $110 billion from their education budgets.

Advocates for more school choice are hoping that DeVos’ tenure means fewer restrictions on states’ ability to secure funding. Jeanne Allen, chief executive of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., said a Trump administration “could mean dramatically increased options for learners at all levels, from pre-K to 12th grade. It allows students who are stuck in failing schools to finally attend a school that best meets their needs.”

Though efforts to expand school choice and vouchers on a federal level have persisted for decades, “it’s been a talking point, rather than what it will be in the Trump administration, which will be the central focus,” Whitehurst said.

James Merriman, chief executive of the NYC Charter School Center, noted that the Obama administration offered strong support for charter schools, and that the idea of “school choice” and vouchers, in general, is a more partisan and charged issue. For the charter school movement, Trump’s election “means continued support in Washington, the same type of support we enjoyed through Clinton, through Bush, and the Obama administration,” Merriman said.

The only federal voucher program is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, available to 1,500 low-income students in Washington D.C. Education analysts predict that Trump will launch more such programs across the country. Currently, 13 states offer government-funded vouchers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while other states offer a mix of education tax credits and subsidies for multiple learning initiatives.

DeVos’ nomination has riled advocates of public schools and teachers’ unions.

“Symbolically, it’s a pretty loud statement in favor of private school choice,” said Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. McCluskey predicted that DeVos would “use the bully pulpit to say the best way to deliver education is by allowing families to choose the schools that are best for their unique children.”

McCluskey added, “the big question mark is, what will that translate in terms of federal policy?”

Long Island administrators said they are worried that Trump’s proposals could result in less funding for the region’s school systems.

Charles Russo, superintendent of the East Moriches School District and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said he feared a block grant program would make it “more competitive” and tougher for the Island’s schools to gain federal funding.

“If it becomes something that’s going to be based on socio-economic status, ethnicity, and those types of measurements to see who would actually get those grants, that becomes an erosion on the funding resource that the great majority of Long Island school districts count on,” Russo said.

“A great majority of communities on Long Island might be viewed on a national level as being wealthy,” Russo added. “On a local level, we have many households struggling to make their mortgage and tax payments.”

Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district and a past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said in an interview, “we are uniformly concerned about his choice for Secretary of Education. We prefer to see someone in that position who understands the challenges and triumphs of public education.”

Trump, in the campaign, has also commented on higher education. He proposed a monthly 12.5 percent cap on student loans, to be forgiven in 15 years. Regulations passed under the Obama administration cap payments to 10 percent annually and end after 20 years for undergraduate study and 25 years after graduate schooling.

Experts also predict that Trump will promote vouchers or subsidies to fund parents’ child care costs, an issue his daughter, Ivanka Trump, has prioritized.

And they agree that Trump, a fierce critic of the Common Core, has little power to rescind the standards that have been set by the individual states. Currently, forty-two states and the District of Columbia abide by the Common Core.

Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative to the state Board of Regents, said he believes a federal voucher program “can’t succeed on a national level, because states are not going to go along with it.” Tilles added that individual states would need to contribute considerable sums of funding for them to adequately cover low-income students. He also noted the opposition to private school tax breaks from Democrats in the State Legislature. “The state of New York isn’t going to go for vouchers,” Tilles said.

“When it comes to school choice, I think overwhelmingly our communities are satisfied with the education they’re receiving,” Russo said. “The concern that I have is that’s not the case for many cities throughout the country. ”


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