The Trump administration is set to implement a series of reforms for America’s education system. President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are planning to redistribute funds granted to public schools by the Obama Administration into states to increase school choice opportunities. The shift in ideology and approaches to education from the previous administration is sparking a series of controversial debates over the future of American education. With this stalemate, it is the government’s responsibility to create productive communication and ensure that policy reflects the diverse perspectives and experiences of all Americans.
During the Obama administration, federal funding was funneled into public schools as an effort to reform grant programs, promote free and healthy lunches and establish afterschool activities. The Trump administration has signaled its intent to take an entirely different approach. Specifically, an overhaul of the old system is taking place to reallocate funds to a $250 million private-school-choice program and $168 million increase in charter-school funding. The Obama administration enacted policies intended to provide equal access and opportunities for students around the country. Today, the Trump administration is instead focusing its efforts to improve individual choice and increase state autonomy by investing more into programs that allow greater access to charter, magnet, private, and religiously affiliated schools. However, opponents fear that cuts in federal funding to public schools will add significant challenges to an already suffering education system. As the debate continues, the nation remains deeply divided on what needs to be done for the future of American education.
The Trump administration’s promotion of school choice claims to be grounded in the desire to help low-income, urban children find the best fit for their specific needs. Secretary DeVos has indicated her intention to expand school choice access through improvements to state school voucher programs. House Bill 610 was recently introduced to advance this initiative. The bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provides funding to low-income schools to improve equal access to education, and instead uses state dollars for vouchers. Vouchers allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice, which in certain states extends to private and religiously affiliated schools. Currently, fourteen states offer voucher programs, however, due to the Blaine Amendments, which prohibit public spending on religious schools, many states limit where the vouchers can be used.
In order to be an educated part of this conversation, it’s important to understand the contested elements of school choice. Vouchers are state-funded scholarships awarded to students who are either below a certain economic threshold, are exceptionally low performing in their public school environment, have disabilities, or are in military families or foster care. Vouchers are granted to students within these categories to cover the cost of foregoing their public schools to attend private schools. Despite the claim that these programs incentivize parents and students to seek out schools that provide the greatest opportunities for success, there remains uncertainty on the benefits of this process. Certain studies show slight gains in academic success through voucher programs, yet others show the exact opposite. Studies conducted in Ohio and Louisiana show that vouchers increased segregation within schools and had a negative impact on academic performance. In Louisiana specifically, families were only eligible for vouchers if annual family income fell below $61,500 and the student receiving the voucher had a letter grade of a “C” or below. The strict and somewhat arbitrary requirements behind voucher programs can encourage families to act unproductively to reach these benchmarks and can further challenge reform efforts.
In conjunction with voucher reforms, Secretary DeVos has advocated for an increase in funding to charter and magnet schools. Charter schools operate under federal funding yet can act independently to the common core and decisions that are made by public schools. Magnet schools operate similarly to public schools, but have a primary focus in a specific subject area such as technology, mathematics, engineering, or science. Both Charter and Magnet schools function with a certain amount of autonomy and pose both alternative benefits and challenges to public schooling. For instance, the allocation of funds to these programs through vouchers allows for increased specialization, however they also create unequal hierarchies between private and public schools and their students. As the list of pros and cons go on, the question still remains: what’s next for education reform in America?
This stalemate in education reform is a complex problem that can only be remedied by working towards effective collaboration. To do so, we must listen to dissenting opinions, question new ideas, and be open to considerable alternatives. As educators, peers, family members and friends, we owe it to our nation’s youth to make informed decisions. It is our responsibility to be the role models that deliver integrity and good governance to the challenges that we face. If increasing access to school choice is a priority of the Trump administration, then the conversation surrounding improving policy behind school choice should embolden. Education shapes future leaders and empowers change, making this debate absolutely fundamental to the growth of our nation. Although we may never be able to fully agree on the answer to what’s next for education reform in America, advocates, dissenters, policymakers, and the general public must all claim their stake in this debate, educate themselves, and work together to establish initiatives that achieve the best outcomes for the greatest amount of young people.