Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Trump and School Choice

By Emily BramhallPublished January 1, 2017

In a time when many believe the United States public schools are failing its students, Donald Trump's proposed solution is to commit federal dollars to promote school-choice among the states. School-choice vouchers have the potential to take resources away from struggling public schools. Are the benefits worth the cost?
The United States public school system is in need of amending. Our schools are failing to fully prepare students for a competitive economy, and they are struggling to fill gaps among populations. President Donald Trump plans to address the nation's deficit in K-12 education by allocating federal funding towards school choice vouchers for low-income families. Specifically, he announced on his campaign trail that he would prioritize $20 billion federal dollars as block grants for states to develop school-choice programs. Trump would like to provide money for this purpose to every one of the 1- million school aged children living in poverty. In order to investigate the effectiveness of Trump's plan, it is necessary to look past the tense political environment and the contentious appointment of the Betsy Devos as the Secretary of Education, and ask important questions. Does school-choice in fact help children succeed in school? How much does school-choice change the allocation of resources? How does reallocation of students affect peers? Does competition in education lift all schools up, or are there winners and losers?

Real change is necessary for the United State's education system. The numbers regarding student academic achievement are disheartening. By fourth grade, only 40% of students are proficient in math and only 36% are proficient in reading. This number is even lower in eighth grade as only 33% of students are proficient in math and 34% are proficient in reading. When these numbers are broken down racially, the discrepancies among them are saddening. By eighth grade, only 46% of white students are reading at a proficient level. Among Latinos, reading proficiency is 22%, and among black students, the number is only 17%. When it comes to schooling, the United States is fifth highest in per-pupil spending. However, this trend is not apparent in academic performance. Internationally, the United States ranks 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science.

Is school-choice the right solution for these disparities? Proponents of school-choice argue that vouchers would break up the "monopoly" the government has on education, and allowing competition among schools will increase their performance. They believe that a competitive education market would cater better to student and family needs. Those that stand against school-choice argue that the policy is detrimental for public schools as the arrival of charter schools and the departure of students to private schools leave public schools with fewer resources and fewer high achieving students.

Like almost anything in education, the results from studies on the topic are mixed. Research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found positive effects of vouchers on public schools in Milwaukee. In this city, for each voucher granted to a student in poverty, the school lost half the amount in funding. The study found that the public schools that faced the highest amount of competition had the highest increase in achievement on exam scores per dollar spent. Another study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated student performance in charter schools. They found significant increases in test scores for students in charter schools, and evidence of increases for students in magnet schools, though these results were less substantial. In particular, the impact of vouchers on African American students and the impact of charter schools were substantially positive.

However, the impact of school-choice is not uniform, as not all students experience the same positive results. Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that changed attendance to private schools scored lower on reading and math tests compared to students that remained in public schools. Other evidence showed no differences in scores for Hispanic students in New York City in reading and math, and for DC students in math. A lack in change in achievement is not too notable, however; negative effects are rare in education research. The negative effects in Louisiana and Indiana should raise a red flag for school voucher results.
In order to draw conclusions about school-choice programs, more needs to be known about long-term outcomes. In the research it is clear that scores improved for some students in some places, and scores did not improve for other students in other places. Additionally, there are a number of factors that may skew results. In many cases, selection into charter schools may be to be driven by student characteristics or parental involvement in a child's school life. There are additional aspects of Trumps specific plan that need to be addressed as well. Specifically, where would Trump's $20 billion budget come from? Critics fear that funding may be removed from the federal Title 1 budget. This reallocation in funding raises the worry that school vouchers will further deprive dollars from traditional public schools. Committing such a large amount of funding has the potential to destabilize public education. As stated earlier, the United States public school system is underachieving, however; the positive evidence on school-choice does not seem strong enough to take this risk on voucher programs.