What Trump’s pick for education secretary means for the future of school choice

What Trump’s pick for education secretary means for the future of school choice
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Billionaire philanthropist and longtime education activist Betsy DeVos, who is President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education, faced harsh criticism from Democrats this week during her Senate confirmation hearing, but school choice advocates are electrified by the possibility that, together, Trump and DeVos might turn America’s education system upside down.

TheBlaze spoke Wednesday with perhaps one of the nation’s highest profile school choice advocates. Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, once worked with DeVos at the national school choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children. National School Choice Week is this week, Jan. 22-28.

Campanella said he is encouraged by the policies Trump and his education secretary-designate have set forward because, in Campanella’s opinion, they will “expand educational options for families” and get rid of the “strings attached” to federal education dollars that can stifle creativity and innovation in America’s classrooms.

His comments echo what DeVos and Trump have said about parents’ roles in deciding on their children’s education.

“If a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child…we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative,” DeVos said Wednesday, according to Fox News.  That “alternative” could mean allowing states to use federal money to provide vouchers to families who want to enroll their children in public charter schools or private schools.

Trump himself voiced strong support support for school choice in September while speaking at a charter school in Cleveland.

“As your president I will be the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice,” Trump said, according to U.S. News and World Report.

So, now that Trump is president, how might his administration expand school choice into more areas of the country?  

Campanella emphasized the crucial role of states in developing successful school choice programs, noting that good education policies and programs are not designed at the federal level, but rather in these “laboratories of democracy,” or the states. Campanella said that as states experiment with different education models, they can learn from each other by replicating and improving upon existing models.

“It is not something that is a top-down dictate or mandate from the federal government, but rather programs and policies that were created over the course of three decades by each of the 50 states and different states trying different things that other states can then replicate and improve upon,” Campanella said, adding that there are “a lot of great things” related to school choice already going on in various states.

He specifically pointed to Arizona, a state he praised for having some of the best public charter schools in the country. Arizona also offers a full time statewide online academy as well as corporate tax credits for companies that want to help offset the cost of education for low income families.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 27 states offered some form of school choice as of Nov. 2016. Just 14 states and the District of Columbia, however, offer any type of school voucher. Each of these states have different criteria for which students are eligible for the vouchers, where the vouchers can be used, how much the vouchers are worth and how many vouchers can be distributed.

That’s not to say, though, that the federal government does not play a role, however small it may be, Campanella added.

“Where the federal government comes in is, one, by encouraging states to do these things. Not by coercion, but by simple encouragement,” he explained. “And, two, clearing the pathway so they can be done and removing obstacles to the creation of school choice programs and policies.”

One of the “obstacles” Campanella said he hopes the Trump administration will remove is the burdensome regulations.

“When the federal government gives you money, whether it’s money that your state’s tax dollars funded or other states paid into, you’re in a situation where you then have to account for that money, which makes sense, but you also have to do a lot of paperwork to satisfy federal mandates and requirements,” Campanella pointed out. And that process can sometimes “stifle innovation and creativity” in the classroom.

“When they say there are strings attached to federal money, there certainly are, and you end up having to hire a bunch of compliance people in these districts and in school,” Campanella said.

Further, because of the way the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is written, public schools that serve low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students receive extra funding under Title I Part A, but those schools are required to show a number of criteria in order to keep receiving that money.

Depending on the state, aid requirements could be anything from public schools having to meet certain levels academic performance to demanding that teachers attend a designated number of instructional hours. And as Campanella pointed out, each of these criterion take up a considerable amount of both time and resources that could be focused in other areas.

Campanella suggested that instead of pouring more money into public schools and expecting that the additional funds improve performance, parents should be able to choose where their children are educated based on schools’ levels of success with existing students.

But school choice advocates like Campanella don’t want choices limited to public schools or even public charter schools. Campanella, like DeVos, said he supports a state-by-state voucher system that allows any student to attend a private school of their choosing.

“There are literally a dozen different ways this could be done,” Campanella said, referring to the ways in which various states have already implemented education vouchers.

When DeVos was specifically asked Tuesday for her thoughts on allowing taxpayer-funded vouchers to be used at private institutions, the education secretary-designate signaled her support for the idea as long as states, not the federal government, administer the vouchers.

But a more controversial area of concerns whether private institutions that accept public money should be able to follow their own admissions rules or be required to adhere to federal guidelines. One of the more memorable moments of DeVos’ confirmation hearing came when she was asked this very question by Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

“I think that’s a matter best left to the states,” DeVos replied, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But federal law, as it stands today, could further complicate the idea of school vouchers.

The Education of Handicapped Children Act, passed by Congress in 1975, requires that all schools receiving federal funds offer equal educational instruction to students with disabilities. The 40-year-old law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has since been amended by Congress multiple times to afford more protections for handicapped students.

Further, federal law restricts what public school teachers and administrators can and cannot say when it comes to religion. This could present another issue if and when students who receive publicly-funded vouchers choose to attend a private, religious school.

“Unlike private schools, public school districts are bound by the Constitution, which forces them into a delicate balance,” the Center for Public Education states on its website. “Board members and school administrators are required to allow personal acts of religious faith but to simultaneously avoid any appearance that religion (or any particular religion) enjoys special status.”

It’s not difficult to imagine a case where taxpayers of one faith or no faith at all take issue with a student attending a religious school of a separate faith on a publicly funded voucher. Because the school choice movement is still relatively young, such a case would be unprecedented and would likely end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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