This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

President Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education signaled his commitment to expanding local school choice, an issue at the center of his national agenda on K-12 education.

Since her controversial confirmation as secretary of education in February, DeVos has continued to press forward with Trump’s priorities for K-12 education — providing options for parents in local school choice by expanding public charter schools and voucher programs, and improving states’ flexibility in designing education policy while reducing the federal government’s imprint. DeVos also has said she wants to limit federal interference in how teachers perform in the classroom and eliminate federal programs that have not proven to be effective.  

The Obama administration, and state and national teacher groups, including TCTA, hold longstanding opposition toward voucher systems that allow portability (the use of federal funding for nontraditional public school tuition). But the landscape will change in some ways under the Trump administration. The results from the 2016 election put Republicans in control of the White House and gave them majorities in both the House and Senate chambers. Though there is a thin Republican margin (52-46-2) in the Senate, the authorization of any new Title I portability legislation would necessitate Democratic support to reach a 60-vote threshold. To garner any Democratic support, concessions would have to be made, and achieving bipartisan support in Congress seems unlikely. 

However, an appropriations bill could offer federal funding to state education agencies and local districts that choose to participate in grant programs. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill that passed last year included a provision for states to participate in a student-based funding pilot program. Most portability programs only provide that a portion (state contribution) of total student funding follows students to another school. Often federal and local contributions are held at the school of origination. The pilot program allows for all local, state and federal dollars to be rolled into one formula, which will increase funding for the expansion of school choice programs. English language learners, kids in poverty and students in special education would carry more money with them than other students. Congress could provide funding for this or similar programs in the fiscal year 2017 or FY2018 appropriations measures. Tax credit programs, where corporations or individuals receive a tax break by donating to scholarship plans at private schools, is another alternative for school choice expansion. (Texas is considering its own plans for school vouchers in the current session.)

In mid-March, DeVos offered support for Trump’s FY2018 budget blueprint, which seeks to cut funding to the department by $9 billion (13 percent) alongside a larger reduction of $54 billion across all non-defense agencies. While short on details, Trump’s budget proposal would fuse $1.4 billion into three school choice policies: a proposed $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new private school choice program and a $1 billion increase for states under Title I to create student-based budgeting systems that enable students to use federal and state funding at their choice of public schools. To offset these initiatives, 20 programs would be eliminated — including the $2.4 billion Title II program for teacher certification and licensing activities and evaluation systems, and $1.2 billion for after-school programs. AmeriCorps and Communities in Schools are among the after-school programs in Texas that would lose significant federal funding if these cuts are enacted. 

In public comments, DeVos was in lockstep with Trump, saying the budget proposal maintains the department’s focus to invest in underserved commun-ities, reduce ineffective programs and increase investment in choice programs. This approach represents a big shift from education policy during the previous administration.  

During Obama’s presidency, over $7 billion was spent on school improvement grants that the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged had no impact on standardized test scores, high school graduation or college enrollment. Calling those grants an ineffective program, the Trump administration is instead pursuing alternative paths, such as school vouchers. 

More than 28 states now offer some form of private school choice. If federal policy shifts to follow those states, the Trump administration could significantly reshape how public education is delivered across the United States.