Although K–12 education didn’t feature heavily into the 2016 race for the White House, President-elect Donald Trump has not been shy about his support for school choice, even making it part of the agenda he’s promising for his first 100 days in office.
And it’s no secret that Vice President-elect has been a longtime champion of choice, both as a member of Congress and most recently as Governor of Indiana, where he took an already-successful school voucher program to new heights with expanded funding and eligibility.
EdChoice is a nonpartisan organization that doesn’t advocate for the election of any candidate or take sides in political campaigns, but now that Trump and Pence have been elected, we want to point out that the new administration has an incredible opportunity to elevate the issue of school choice to new audiences and take definitive action at the federal level to support school choice policies and programs.
Here’s our Top Five wish list for the incoming administration:
1. Advocate, advocate, advocate.
Every new administration has a chance to use the bully pulpit of the White House to spread the word about its priority issues. We know from our most recent research that Americans overwhelmingly support educational choice. We know that Millennials do, too. As our country moves beyond what most would agree was a contentious election cycle, increased access to quality education for all K–12 students could very well be the issue that brings Americans together around a common goal. Moreover, our research clearly shows that when people are given the facts about education spending and choice that their support increases. So, we encourage the new administration to take every opportunity to educate and engage Americans on the need for educational choice.
2. Push to reauthorize and fully fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program now.
Washington, D.C., is home to one of the most successful educational choice programs in America, which is amazing given that the program is limited to so few and woefully underfunded. Because of its location, the program’s authorization and funding depend not on a state legislature but on Congress. That means thousands of students are frequently left wondering what will happen to their future educational opportunities while politicians debate the merits of the program. President-elect Trump and members of Congress have a chance to end that cycle and make it clear to D.C. families that they all deserve a quality education for their kids. Let’s make D.C. the nation’s capital for educational choice, and let’s make that choice as universal as possible.
3. Cut through red tape like it’s going out of style.
The only time it’s acceptable to run with scissors is if you’re on the way to cut up the bureaucratic red tape that keeps schools from performing their primary duty: educating kids. President-elect Trump has an opportunity to take a hard look at the U.S. Department of Education with a businessman’s eye for duplicative reporting and unnecessary regulations. Anything that can be done to help educators and school leaders get back to their jobs would be a welcome relief at the state level.
4. Start a conversation about expanding the D.C. program into something even more family-friendly.
Education savings accounts (ESAs) represent the next generation of educational choice. ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts that families can use for a variety of services, including private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. In an ideal world, once the voucher program is successfully reauthorized and funded, President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence could kick-start a conversation about converting it into an ESA program, which would represent true educational freedom for families there.
5. Connect ESA programs in states to Title 1 and IDEA funding or provide block grant funding to states.
The federal government could certainly support school choice by sending IDEA funding and Title I block grant Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding back to state legislatures to let them direct those funds. However, an even more effective idea is for the federal government to simply transfer an eligible child’s IDEA or Title 1 funding directly to their education savings account, thus empowering children and families with even more educational choice power. Of course, the alternative of allowing Title I dollars to follow individual students to the private or public school of their choice is also a good idea as it would create incentives for schools to better serve students, reduce state and district-level administrative burdens and address school-funding inequities caused by Title I regulations.
As the incoming administration looks toward the future and its first 100 days, we offer one cautionary note: avoid federal overreach. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and we encourage the Trump-Pence team keep this in mind as they develop their agenda.
K–12 education has long been primarily a state function, which is why most of our work has historically been and will continue to be at the state level. Remember, the Feds only provide around 11 percent of the total per pupil funding. While it might be appealing to consider broad-sweeping changes at the federal level to implement school choice—a national voucher program, for example—the new administration should be wary of anything that stymies new approaches at the state and local level or expands the largesse of an already too-large federal Department of Education.
If we’ve learned anything about K–12 education over the last 25 years, it’s that competition breeds innovation, and innovation benefits students. We’ve seen those effects on a small scale, and we hope to see those successes amplified and reproduced in the coming years.
We wish President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence well as they begin their terms, and we are happy to serve as a resource to any administration or elected official that wants more information about educational choice and how it can be best implemented to help all students thrive.