Republican presidential candidate Donald J Trump announced a few broad proposals for education yesterday on a visit to a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio. Given other clear differences between the candidates in this presidential election, differences in education policy are little more than differences in the insignificant digits of the voting calculation, but for the record, the plans merit space on our pages.
Prior to this, all Mr Trump ever really said about education in the US was that American schools were just as bad as schools “in a developing country” and that the Common Core standards, in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia, are a “disaster.” Most educators were dismissing his comments as nothing new.
But in a 45-minute speech before about 350 mostly African-American students at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, he outlined the general principles that now represent the sum total of the plans he has submitted to the American public about what a federal Education Department would look like in a Trump administration.
PROPOSAL: Mr. Trump’s first budget will immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice. This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars. Specifically, Mr. Trump’s plan will use $20 billion of existing federal dollars to establish a block grant for the 11 million school age kids living in poverty. Individual states will be given the option as to how these funds will be used.
Mitt Romney had a similar idea in 2012, but efforts to enact anything close have died a wimpy death in Congress. For example, Senator Lamar Alexander put forth a proposal in 2014 that would take federal dollars and give it to kids living in poverty as a sort of voucher. Those kids’ families could use the money to send their kid to whatever school they wanted.
“Our largest cities spend some of the largest amounts of money on public schools,” Mr Trump exclaimed in Cleveland. “New York City spends $20,226 per pupil. Baltimore spends $15,287 per student. Chicago spends $11,976 per student, and in Los Angeles it is $10,602.
“Just imagine if each student in these school systems was given a scholarship for this amount of money—allowing them and their family to choose the public or private school of their choice. Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produce better outcomes.”
For whatever reason, competition between schools has failed—utterly failed—to accomplish what Mr Trump says competition would accomplish.
“These schools would then cater to the needs of the individual student and family—not the needs of the teachers’ union,” he continued. “There is no more important job than a teacher, and teachers will benefit greatly from these reforms.”
Again, these comments reflect a superficial understanding of the problems facing schools. Documentation of the efforts on the part of labor unions, including teachers’ unions, to protect the jobs of all workers is epic in our literature. But what Mr Trump says “would then” (and only then) happen—schools catering to the needs of students and families—is already happening.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told Politico that such a diversion of federal funding would “gut” close to 30 percent of the federal education budget. It would “decimate public schools across America,” the news site quoted her as saying.
PROPOSAL: As President, Mr. Trump will establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty. That means that we want every disadvantaged child to be able to choose the local public, private, charter or magnet school that is best for them and their family. Each state will develop its own formula, but the dollars should follow the student.
PROPOSAL: To achieve this long-term goal of school choice, Mr. Trump [will] make this a shared national mission—to bring hope to every child in every city in this land. Mr. Trump will use the pulpit of the presidency to campaign for this in all 50 states and will call upon the American people to elect officials at the city, state, and federal level who support school choice.
Being a “cheerleader” for school choice is sure to score points among Republicans and among traditional conservatives. Vouchers to be used by private schools, however, which would mostly be religious schools, are of questionable constitutionality.
The National Council of State Legislatures met in July in Chicago, and one of the breakout sessions addressed the constitutionality question. Court rulings differ, so the feds aren’t likely to get entangled in that battle.
People don’t fall for this much anymore, especially when it comes to private schools and charter schools, which are in many ways private. “Unregulated, unaccountable, for-profit charter schools—like the one Trump is visiting today—have destabilized our public districts, defrauded taxpayers, and left our kids and educators worse off, not better,” the New York Times quoted Melissa Cropper, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, as saying about Mr Trump’s visit to Cleveland.
For her part, Ms Clinton doesn’t oppose charter schools, but she has said we need to stop wasting time arguing over their merits. She’d like schools to get back to the business of schooling.
PROPOSAL: Mr. Trump will also support merit-pay for teachers, so that great teachers are rewarded instead of the failed tenure system that currently exists, which rewards bad teachers and punishes good ones.
We have shown on these pages that merit pay for teachers is ineffective in promoting teacher quality. Controlled studies generally find that teachers give their all in their classrooms and giving them more money won’t make them teach any better.
The idea of rewarding good teachers and punishing bad ones isn’t terrible, though. As Mr Trump uses the statement, however, it’s an over-generalization. We can’t stereotype bad teachers into a group of teachers who get rewarded any more than we can stereotype good teachers into a group of those who get punished.
Plus, I assume, given the lack of detail in Mr Trump’s proposal, that he would advocate for basing this merit pay he proposes on the results of standardized tests in reading, math, and perhaps a few other subjects. The validity of those tests has been called into question, and the quality of those tests has been shown to be inadequate for testing, especially in high school mathematics.
Ms Clinton supports teachers’ unions in general, and teachers’ unions have been the scapegoat, deservedly or undeservedly, for entrenched low-quality teachers, but she differs with unions on certain positions, like charter schools, as stated above.
“We don’t pay teachers what they deserve to be paid—in other countries that have better test scores than ours, teachers get paid much more. We have a lot of people who come out of school burdened with student loans and decide they can’t go into teaching, so we lose a lot of good young people,” she has said.
But in 2000, she signed on to “A New Agenda for the New Decade,” part of which included setting a goal for 2010: “Make sure every classroom has well-qualified teachers who know the subjects they teach, and pay teachers more for performance.”
Her current position on merit pay is unknown, although in a 2007 debate with Barack Obama, she said, “I support school-based merit pay.
“We need to get more teachers to go into hard-to-serve areas. We’ve got to get them into underserved urban areas, underserved rural areas. The school is a team, and it’s important that we reward that collaboration. A child who moves from kindergarten to sixth grade in the same school, every one of those teachers is going to affect that child. You need to weed out the teachers not doing a good job. That’s the bottom line. They should not be teaching our children.”