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October 22, 2017

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Trump’s call for school vouchers is a return to a campaign pledge

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Al Drago / The New York Times

Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, during President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber in the Capitol, Feb. 28, 2017. Trump signaled in the address that he will move aggressively to allow public school students to use tax money to pay for tuition at public charter schools, private schools and even religious schools.

President Donald Trump, returning to a promise that won him cheers on the campaign trail, signaled in his first address to Congress on Tuesday that he will move aggressively to allow more public school students to use tax money to pay for tuition at public charter schools, private schools and even religious schools.

At rallies last year across the country, Trump said over and over again that he would use the nation’s schools to fix what he described as failing inner cities and a virtual education crisis that most hurts black and Hispanic children. In North Carolina, he called school choice “the great civil rights issue of our time.” In Florida, he declared that “every disadvantaged child in this country” should have access to school choice.

And, at a Washington gathering of conservatives, he said that under his administration, “money will follow the student to the public, private or religious school that is best for them and their family.” In his speech on Tuesday, Trump reiterated those pledges, and in doing so backed his controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has built her career on promoting voucher programs.

“I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” Trump said during the joint session of Congress, to applause from many Republican lawmakers. “These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

In a statement, DeVos praised the president and said he “delivered on his promise to support school choice and offer students access to quality options.”

An Education Department official said on Wednesday afternoon that Trump and DeVos were considering a number of ways to create a federal school choice program that would offer tax credit scholarships. That would allow individuals and corporations to make tax deductible donations to nonprofit networks of private schools, which then provide tuition scholarships to students. The administration is also considering allowing schools to directly access Title I funds from the Education Department that are used to help support low-income students.

On the campaign trail, Trump introduced an ambitious $20 billion school voucher plan that would have allowed students to move federal education dollars to the public or private school of their choice. But the idea, seen by some as radical and expensive, has scant congressional support.

Meanwhile, even some supporters of school choice programs remain skeptical of increased federal involvement, which could come with regulations on which students are accepted by private schools, and how students are assessed academically.

Greg Forster, a fellow at EdChoice, a research and advocacy organization that promotes school choice options, said that while he welcomes more support for the idea of school choice, he wants the issue to remain a state responsibility.

“We have achieved a lot of victories at the state level by building bridges,” Forster said. Having Trump as an advocate “is a bigger problem for the school choice movement than it is a blessing, in my book,” he said.

He added that there is “no need for a federal push for school choice” because the options are increasingly gaining ground, leading to 61 private school choice programs in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, said opinions like Forster’s show that a federal choice program will be a tough sell to Congress. “Even the Republicans are in disagreement about a lot of the details about how the program would work,” Lake said.

The choice movement has ranged from the narrow embrace of public charter schools to an approach favored by conservatives that would take tax money and increasingly make it available to religious institutions. Some see allowing religious schools to use public funds as an unconstitutional support of religion by the government. Yet advocates and opponents of such programs say religious schools — including many Catholic schools serving low-income students — have for years been included in the voucher programs.

More than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution could not prohibit the use of public vouchers to pay for religious schools in Cleveland. However, in 2015, Colorado’s highest court struck down a voucher program that allowed parents in a conservative suburban school district to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools. The Colorado court ruled that “a school district may not aid religious schools.”

Critics fear that school choice programs can lead to increased segregation. They say black, Latino and white students in urban areas often end up in schools that are more racially homogeneous than their neighborhood schools. Moreover, choice programs could bypass rural school districts where private schools are not an option, and where online schooling has often been shown not to improve education.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said she worried that a federal program would fund private schools and religious schools that may not adhere to the same civil rights laws as public schools. She said such a program would be “essentially supporting a religious doctrine.”

“They can discriminate based on religion, or disability or language needs,” García said of private and religious schools. “That is the exact antithesis of a public school.”

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