Public school supporters are angry at President Trump's budget proposal, which plans to cut funding to the Department of Education by 13 percent – taking that department's outlay down to the level it was ten years ago. But the target for their anger should not be just the extent of the cuts but also how the cuts are being pitched to the public.
At the same time, Trump's spending blueprint calls for pouring $1.4 billion into school choice policies including a $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new school choice program focused on private schools, and a $1 billion increase for parents to send their kids to private schools at taxpayer expense.
The way the Trump administration is spinning this combination of funding cuts and increases – and the way nearly every news outlet is reporting them – is that there is some sort of strategically important balance between funding programs for poor kids versus "school choice" schemes, as if the two are equivalents and just different means to the same ends. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A False Equivalency
Shortly after Trump unveiled the plan, his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was quick to echo the false equivalency.
"The president promised to invest in our underserved communities and our increased investment in choice programs will do just that," she is quoted in a report for U.S. News & World Report.
Another ardent proponent of vouchers and charter schools, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, praised the plan, calling it "a significant step forward" for "the needs of children and families instead of programs and districts."
The message being spun out of Trump's education budget is that it takes money away from those awful "adult interests" – like, you know, teachers to actually teach the students and buildings so students have somewhere to go after school to play sports, get tutored, or engage in music and art projects – in order to steer money to "the kids" who will get a meager sum of money to search for learning opportunities in an education system that is increasingly bereft of teachers and buildings.
Even competent education reporters are falling for this spin, writing that education policy is experiencing a "sea change in focus from fixing the failing schools to helping the students in the failing schools."
However, there's evidence that federally funded efforts like afterschool programs and class size reduction tend to lead to better academic results for low-income children, while the case for using school choice programs to address the education needs of poor kids is pretty weak.
The Weak Case For Choice
School voucher programs, like the ones Trump and DeVos seem intent on funding, are particularly ineffective ways to address the education problems of poor kids. Indeed, these programs seem to not serve the interests of poor kids at all.
Studies of voucher programs In Wisconsin, Indiana, Arizona, and Nevada have found that most of the money from the programs goes to parents wealthy enough to already have their children enrolled in private schools.
Voucher programs rarely provide enough money to enable poor minority children to get access to the best private schools. And a new comprehensive study of vouchers finds evidence that vouchers don't significantly improve student achievement. What they do pose is greater likelihood that students who are the most costly and difficult to educate – low-income kids and children with special needs – will be turned away or pushed out by private schools that are not obligated to serve all students.
Charter schools, another program the Trump budget wants to ramp up funding for, also don't have a great track record for improving the education attainment of low-income students.
Perhaps the best case made for using charter schools to target the needs of low-income students comes from a study on the impact of charters in urban school systems conducted by research outfit CREDO in 2015. The study indeed found evidence of some positive impact of charters in these communities. But as my colleague at The Progressive Julian Vasquez Heilig points out, the measures of improvement, in standard deviations, are .008 for Latino students and .05 for African American students in charter schools.
"These numbers are larger than zero," Heilig writes on his personal blog, "but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction which are far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. They have 400 percent to 1000 percent more statistical impact than charters."
Indeed, choice programs in all their forms, at least in how they are being promoted by the Trump administration and its supporters, seem more interested in diverting money away from public schools than they are intent on delivering some sort of education relief to the struggles of poor families.
Direct Harm To Teachers And Students
In the meantime, the negative, direct impact of Trump's proposed budget cuts on students, especially those living in low-income communities, will be all too real.
In California, Trump's proposed cuts to federal grants to hire and support more teachers would short the state $252 million at a time when the state is experiencing severe shortages in teachers.
Trump's proposed cuts to afterschool programs in New Jersey would threaten the existence of these programs in 50 cites in some of the state's most economically disadvantaged communities including Newark, Trenton, Paterson, and Union City.
The toll of Trump's budget cuts on schools in South Florida would amount to $25 million in Broward County and $40 million in Miami-Dade. A program for teacher training would likely be eliminated, and afterschool programs in low-income communities could go away.
Politico interviewed state education leaders to learn the potential impact of Trump's education budget and found concern across the political spectrum. Republican Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said cuts to federal grants for hiring and supporting teachers come at a time when the state is struggling to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies. And Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester worries about the loss of more than $15 million for afterschool programs.
An analysis by Think Progress, the advocacy center for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, looks at the impact of Trump's proposed education cuts nationwide and tallies the impact of teacher grant program cuts and cuts to afterschool programs. "Trump’s budget would hinder every state’s ability to deliver critical services and resources to their K-12 students," the analysis concludes, "impacting thousands of teachers and millions of students."
The Long-Term Danger
While the direct, negative impact of Trump's proposed budget cuts seems swift and certain, there is potentially a more long-term danger in perpetuating the myth that the budget trade-off of direct aid versus choice is a valid point of policy debate.
Telling the public that allocating education funding is a battle over whether to pay for direct programs for kids versus stoking the coffers of private schools and the charter school industry is not only disingenuous, it's harmful to the most vulnerable students and families.