My education policy friends were frustrated that education didn’t get more air time during the presidential campaign season, but I was relieved. I cringed every time I heard candidate Donald Trump and his surrogates talk about education. All I could think of was the analysis I did eight years ago of George W. Bush’s school choice legacy. My view was that President Bush actually hurt the charter movement by trying to help it: by tying charter schools to NCLB punishment, and by pushing choice as an end, not a means. In 2009 I wrote:
Bush’s support for charters backfired in many ways. By using the bully pulpit to promote the idea of choice rather than to promote policies that support high-quality choices, and by making chartering an NCLB punishment rather than promoting it as an opportunity for partnership, the Administration’s support for charters became a liability.
All of the Trump administration’s likely nominees for Secretary of Education and top policy influencers are strong choice advocates. Trump himself has little to say about what he wants to promote in education besides school choice. The feds’ role in education has already been reduced through a greatly decentralized revamp of Title I. And there has been promise of a greatly reduced Department of Education. So I imagine choice advocates should mainly expect to see an expansion in federal dollars going to the Charter Schools Program, perhaps some new support for voucher programs.
But there will likely be plenty of rhetoric. Nominee Trump paired talk of providing a school of choice to every inner city child with denigration of “terrible” public schools. Given the largely successful push by teachers unions and other opponents of public school choice to brand charter schools as a conservative, partisan issue, the last thing public charter schools need is to have the next president feed the “end of public education” narrative.
Our study of Detroit’s current choice environment, now at 50 percent charter schools, offers an important caution: choice alone is no panacea. In Detroit, charter schools slightly outperform district schools, but their students are still among the lowest-performing in the nation. A dozen different government agencies sponsor schools without any coordination, resulting in a mess for parents: no one is working on transportation, no one is taking responsibility for closing low-performing schools, no one is making sure that students with special needs are well served.
School choice presented as a panacea is dangerous both rhetorically and as policy. If there’s one clear lesson from the last 25 years of charter school implementation, it’s that choice and competition are necessary but by no means sufficient to dramatically improve outcomes for students. Choice is a powerful force, but it must be accompanied by thoughtful government oversight and supports for quality. There must be mechanisms to ensure that schools of choice serve the most challenging students. And there must be coordinated efforts across localities to empower parents with information, transportation, and other support systems. Without these efforts, families most often end up with a lot of choice and very little in the way of better options. Efforts are underway in many major cities to make school choice work for families through district-charter partnerships. The payoff from these efforts for students and families is high, but the politics are fragile.
To avoid choice becoming permanently polarized and associated with right-wing politics, scholars and advocates need to fight new programs that don’t promote quality and accountability. They need to advocate for policies that promote cooperative problem solving among school providers, including districts in cities where thousands of students still attend traditional public schools. They need to continue to support efforts to address equitable access for students with disabilities and other special needs. They need to also proactively maximize the effectiveness and accountability of any private voucher/scholarship and education savings account proposals.
If the new administration is serious about making school choice expand and thrive long term, leaders would do well to pick their battles carefully to minimize polarization and maximize quality. They should continue to support funding for the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools, and they should make new investments in research and support for parent information, equitable funding and facilities, and innovative, low-regulation approaches to equity and effectiveness in schools of choice. The new Department of Education would also do well to invest in strategies to prevent harm to students in districts facing major enrollment losses, such as local district-charter partnerships. These are all ways to support choice responsibly and thoughtfully and are in line with conservative values of local control and family empowerment.
If the recent presidential campaign was any indication, the next four years will be some of the most politically divisive we’ve seen in many years. Despite opponents’ claims, the school choice community has been a remarkably pragmatic one where results are supposed to be more important than what the school is called. It’s incumbent upon choice supporters to step up now and present a united front to keep it that way.