School choice can’t afford to be TrumpChoice
Controversial Common Core and No Child Left Behind suffered while choice thrives with local leaders.
Until recently, it looked like President Trump was going to become the majordomo of the school choice parade. The bizarre thing is that this would have been a big blow to school choice. Fortunately, for those of us who think school choice is generally a good thing, it looks like a federal choice provision is not likely to be part of a tax overhaul. And no one thinks there’s any real chance that Republicans will get school choice legislation through Congress (which would require 60 votes in the Senate, rather than the simple majority required by the tax bill). This means Trump is unlikely to be seizing the school choice baton any time soon.
The irony? This is good news for school choice, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
School choice has had a remarkable run over the past quarter century. In 1990, Wisconsin enacted the nation’s first school voucher law. A year later, in 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law. Twenty-five years ago, the number of students served by school choice could be tallied in the hundreds. Today, more than three million students are enrolled in charter schools and another 250,000 use vouchers or tax credit tuition scholarships to attend private schools.
This growth has come with remarkably little in the way of “help” from Washington. The Clinton administration provided some modest funding to help new charters. The Bush administration made charter schooling a permissible remedy under No Child Left Behind and helped launch a pilot voucher program in Washington, D.C.
And the Obama administration made support for charter schools a small portion of its Race to the Top program. But these charter efforts remained a tiny percentage of federal spending, Bush was rebuffed on an effort to make school choice a much bigger component of NCLB, and the Obama administration did its best to anesthetize the D.C. voucher program.
What this has meant is that school choice has necessarily relied upon a network of state and local advocates. Major funders have played a role, of course, but the likes of the Walton and Gates foundations have had to rely on and defer to local leaders. As a result, every state has its own “choice” coalition, with its own personalities and leaders.
Compare this to the fate of No Child Left Behind or the Common Core, where the venture was nationally branded as the president’s baby. This doubtless helped in some states, but it proved poisonous in others — and it eventually ensured that reforms were seen as federal intrusions.
Trump becoming the national pitchman for school choice would yield a similar fate. Indeed, it would mean much more. Trump is a historically unpopular president. In the history of presidential polling, no president has ever polled this low, this early. Trump is polarizing and crude, while his administration is clumsy and gaffe-prone.
So, school choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president. Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice (this happened to plenty of Republicans who weren’t sure what to make of the Common Core, but who figured that — if Barack Obama was out front pushing it — they were probably wise to be leery).
And school choice has a lot to lose. Enrollment is growing in charter schools and voucher programs. More expansive forms of school choice, like education savings accounts, are being explored. Because the programs are state-run, states have a free hand to address concerns or to expand eligibility. Meanwhile, evaluations are generally localized, which means it’s easier to maintain a sense of proportion when talking about research findings from a given state or city.
Through luck as much as anything else, school choice advocates have gotten school reform right over the past 25 years. Despite all the setbacks, they’ve persisted. They have won hearts and minds, cultivated allies, and paid a lot of attention to learning how charter school laws and voucher programs work in practice. They have asked how to boost school quality, remove bottlenecks in school supply, and equip families to make good choices. They have paid careful attention to communities and statehouses, rather than focusing on Washington.
In a word, they have focused on the doing rather than the talking. They have kept families, schools and communities at the forefront of the school choice push. It’s hard to think of anything less calculated to build on this success than to have a Washington politician — especially Donald J. Trump — become the face of school choice. Whether they know it or not yet, school choice advocates have dodged a bullet.