President Trump and education in the midstate

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump talked about a lot of ways that he intended to improve many facets of American life. He applied his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” to almost every issue. But he offered few specifics about his plans for the education of America’s children.

President Trump’s number one policy goal, when it comes to education, is to boost significantly school choice. As a businessman, Trump views the American education system just as he would a business deal — as a competition. He believes that America is losing the battle when it comes to education, and so he’s proposed investing $20 billion in school choice.

He also views school choice as a way to provide a better option to parents and students who are stuck in inner city, urban school districts that are failing at rates significantly higher than other demographics. According to national statistics there are approximately 11 million school-aged children living below the poverty line. These families have no choice, currently, but to send their children to the school in the district in which they live.


One challenge is funding. President Trump has yet to detail how he’ll fund the $20 billion investment, other than by “reprioritizing” existing federal education funding. Another challenge is that, when looking at national outcomes, charter schools do not, as a whole, perform better than their public school brethren. Yes, there are some charter schools that outperform other schools in a particular geographic area, but just as many perform at an average level.

Additionally, as has been seen in central Pennsylvania, charter schools have encountered run-ins with mismanagement of funds and other transgressions. Opponents say this is because the laws that govern public education are not applied to charter schools, and that charter schools require stricter oversight, governance and evaluation.

“Trump did not talk a whole lot about education during the campaign,” said Wythe Keever, assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the labor union that represents public school teachers. “In his one significant policy speech on education, he stated he wants to create, using federal funding, a nationwide school voucher program. That would, basically, take funding away from public school districts to fund that program.”

It is rumored that President Trump plans to divert Title I funding away from its current use to partially fund his school choice program.

“It’s a significant amount of money for school districts that serve low-income populations,” Keever continued. “It would be disastrous to these students and these schools.”

The other argument made against charter schools is that school choice is a bit of misdirection, that the parents don’t really get to choose which schools their children attend. The allegation is that charter schools can cherry pick the best students and send students with behavioral issues or special needs back to the public school system from which they came.

“First of all, it is illegal for charter schools to screen students,” said Robert Fayfich, the executive director for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. “Every student must be accepted, except where there’s a cap on enrollment. If there are too may kids, the school has to conduct a blind lottery, and the charter has no control over who comes into that school. It’s absolutely false that charters are pre-screening students. If people want to make that argument, they need to introduce proof, and if it is, then that charter should be closed. But there’s never any proof offered. It’s an accusation without support.”

Fayfich also said that charter school opponents also never mention the good work being done like at the Academy Charter school in Pittsburgh that accepts all truant students in the public school system, and then works with those student to keep them in school. Fayfich also said that it’s premature for anyone to predict what’s going to happen to education in the next administration; but he says there are reasons for optimism.

“The honest answer is, nobody knows yet,” Fayfich continued. “It’s difficult to tell what the implications will be. Both sides are wrong…We simply don’t know right now. It does appear that this administration wants to push more responsibility down to the states in every area. More state focused and less federal oriented. That could mean more flexibility for states in education funding. There’s also a feeling in the incoming administration that there’s too much standardized testing, and they aren’t supporters of Common Core.”

Cautiously optimistic?

As far as policy goes, many hope that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) stays in place. It was signed into law by the Obama administration in December 2015, and it was a reauthorization of NCLB, but with significant changes. State education plans under the previous law expire with this school year, and schools and states are in the process of developing new plans to submit to the U.S. Department of Education.

“At the moment, we are taking a wait and see attitude,” said Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “(President) Trump had made some comments concerning local control, which is a positive thing. The ESSA legislation was a positive improvement to NCLB, and we’re hoping the new administration doesn’t upend that. It was passed with pretty good bipartisan support, and it puts control back in the hands of states, with less reliance on testing.”

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