Whitmire: Donald Trump, the Best (or Worst) Thing to Happen to School Choice?

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President-elect Donald Trump will be “the greatest thing that ever happened” to charter schools, Rudolph Giuliani recently declared, speaking as vice chairman of Trump’s transition team.

That could happen — but there’s an equal chance he will be the worst.

The former New York City mayor’s assertion is based on a simple campaign vow: President Trump will create a $20 billion grant program for states to fund “choice” programs, such as vouchers and charters.

For a supporter of top-performing charters such as me, what’s not to like?

The biggest fear is the possibility that Trump will kick away the bipartisan political stool that has long supported charters. If charters become a right-wing cause (historically, their biggest underpinnings, in fact, have come from the liberal side), the first applause you’ll hear is from the charter-hostile and Democratically aligned national teachers unions, which will correctly sniff vulnerable prey.

“The rhetoric we hear from the Trump people, ‘Choice is good and school districts are bad,’ sets us back a decade,” said Robin Lake from the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. The unions have invested heavily in promoting that exact line, said Lake, painting reformers as wanting to destroy public schools.

“The last thing we need is for the president to play into that narrative.”

The next possible setback: promoting “choice” without making it clear that choice is a useless tool unless it creates new, high-performing schools.

Those in the school reform movement learned the hard way that choice alone does not produce more seats in great schools. If that were the case, we’d all be praising the early voucher program in Milwaukee and the widespread charters in Ohio and Michigan. But in all those cases, choice alone produced nothing.

In Milwaukee, for example, which I visited repeatedly while researching my book On the Rocketship, about the creation of one best-in-class charter network, the more-than-two-decade-old voucher experiment proved to be a clear flop. (Note that I didn’t say unpopular. Who objects to free tuition for their kid’s parochial schools?)

But from a school reform perspective, it was a disaster. Not only did vouchers fail to arrest white flight, they also failed to create high-performing schools. That’s why Milwaukee business leaders reached out to the Rocketship group: Maybe top charters can jump-start a move to high-performing schools, they hoped.

And the charters in Ohio and Michigan? I just finished The Founders, a book about the birth and growth of the country’s strongest-performing charter schools. No charters in these two states were mentioned. Enough said.

Bottom line: If you set out with a plan to promote choice, rather than promoting the creation of good new schools, your plan is pretty much doomed from day one.

Another issue: the $20 billion for Trump’s choice plan appears to ignore some of the most promising school innovations out there — collaborations between charters and districts such as are found in Denver. Blurring the lines between charter and district schools isn’t politically easy, but in heavily Democratic big cities it becomes a non-starter if the president does nothing but bash traditional schools.

Is it possible I’m being too negative? Perhaps.

Some charter advocates, however, are even more dire: “I can’t think of anything more potentially harmful to the charter school movement, or anything more antithetical to its progressive roots, than having Donald Trump as its national champion,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform.

“If Trump thinks he can buy off progressive education reformers by merely increasing funding for the federal charter school program while simultaneously advancing destructive policies like throwing millions of families off of federally subsidized health care and deporting millions of Dreamers and their parents, he’s in for a rude surprise.”

On the other end of the range, some advocates are far sunnier.

“There’s no question that Trump-Pence will create tremendous new opportunities for students and families around the country,” said Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. “First, with its bully pulpit — the charter school community has been beaten up and badgered for the last several years.”

Allen also applauds their promotion of vouchers, predicting that programs such as D.C.’s controversial Opportunity Scholarship Program, which last year gave scholarships to 1,244 poor students to attend private school, will come off “life support.” The House voted to extend the federally funded program last year, but the measure stalled in the Senate.

“Private school choice is alive and well in the states and actually showing better persistence and success in college and life than the little we know now about charter school effects,” said Allen. “We need all kinds of opportunity, not just one that still is reliant upon public regulators,” she said, referring to charters.

Most school reform advocates, I suspect, fall into a pragmatic middle. We welcome your support, President-elect Trump, but please execute with a precision that acknowledges lessons learned.

That’s where I fall. If you’ve got a spare $20 billion, there’s no truer path for investing that money than the federal Charter Schools Program at the U.S. Department of Education.

Praising bureaucrats does not come naturally to me, but take a look at just one way the department invests in these schools: the replication and expansion of high-performing charters. Since 2010, that fund has invested $336 million into expanding charter networks such as KIPP, IDEA and Denver’s DSST.

Now look at just their 2016 investments: 15 grants that over five years will total $126 million. Over those five years, the grants will lead to roughly 167 new charters and expansion of 17 schools that are currently open.

But are they wise investments? Let’s refer back to The Founders, where I focus only on the best charters, ones that over time add a year and a half of learning for every year a student attends school. When looking over their grant award list, it seems like old home week.

This pragmatic middle is where Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, comes down. “The president-elect can increase funding for the current CSP to $1 billion from its current level of $333 million,” said Rees. “The CSP brings new charter schools into communities that need strong public school options.”

Rees is right, and there are other proven federal pathways to grow charters in other ways, including rural areas, where Trump drew so much of his support.

So, the choice is up to Trump. Do you pour the money into a block grant fund likely to create more Milwaukees and Detroits, or do you turn it over to charter veterans with a strong track record of creating great new schools around the country?

Keep repeating this mantra: It’s not about choice … It’s about being able to choose a great school.

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