Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits a fifth grade science class in a Washington, D.C. charter school. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Trump’s education budget aims to deliver a big boost to “school choice”—and siphon resources from urban schools in low-income areas.

Donald Trump’s proposed education budget aims to cut spending by 13.5 percent, or $9.2 billion, from the current $68.2 billion budget. It’s the biggest single-year cut a president has tried to make since Reagan attempted to gut the department in 1983. Targeted for the biggest hit: public schools. Specifically, after-school programs, teacher training, foreign languages, and the like would be slashed or eliminated.

Yet the budget gives public schools a way to make some cash: If local districts agree to allow open enrollment, in which parents, regardless of where they live, can send their children to any area public school, the districts will be awarded grants from a $1 billion initiative clunkily dubbed Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS). When a child moves from one school to another, the local, state, and federal funds attached to them would follow.  

FOCUS reflects Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her signature fixation on “school choice,” whereby students have the option to attend schools different than the one they are zoned for geographically. These schools may be public, including charter schools (as in the case of FOCUS), or they maybe be private schools, including religious schools. Trump and DeVos support supplying parents with vouchers to offset the costs of private schools; the White House budget ups the funding for charter schools and private school choice to the tune of $417 million.

While it’s almost guaranteed Congress won’t pass the budget, the big boost to school choice is a sign of how far the issue has come in the past 15 years, among both Republicans and Democrats. The Obama administration didn’t support private school vouchers, but it did promote charter schools. For instance, Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top program, a $4.35 billion grant that aims to spur and reward innovation in K-12 education, rewards states for allowing the growth of charter schools.

Students walk home from Briarwood Elementary, a traditional public school in Oklahoma City. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

School-choice supporters tout it as a way for parents living in neighborhoods with low-performing schools to send their kids to better schools in low-poverty areas. It’s a strategy generally applied to urban contexts, as rural areas are more likely to have a single school that the community rallies around. And it’s on the rise across the country. “We still have neighborhood attendance zones, and most children in the U.S. attend traditional public schools,” says Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute. “But 42 percent of children in Washington, D.C. attend a charter school, and in New Orleans practically every school is a charter school.”  

An increase in educational equity in cities sounds great on paper, but in practice problems arise. With FOCUS, children who are moving from low-performing schools to higher-performing schools would take funding with them, so resources are directed out of the schools that need them most. When children move to charter schools or private schools, studies show that they don’t necessarily do better, at least on standardized tests (despite some success stories). Researchers have also found that these schools increase segregation. And such schools are implicated in corruption scandals.

But perhaps the most fundamental issue is that parents, particularly low-income parents, prefer a school in their neighborhood. Even if a child from a low-performing school in a disadvantaged neighborhood secures a rare spot in a high-performing school in a wealthy neighborhood, they still have to find a way to get there and back every day. Transportation is not often provided, and parents without a lot of money and time find it difficult, if not impossible, to ferry their child back and forth each day via public transport or other means. (And with schools starting ridiculously early in suburbs and cities alike, the schlep is even harder to accomplish.)  

A 2016 study out of New Orleans, where more than 9 out of 10 children attend charter schools, shows that parents don’t necessarily choose schools based on academics. Each year, the city asks parents to rank eight schools in order of preference, and it then uses an algorithm to place students in schools across the city. Parents may tell researchers that they choose schools based on test scores and other academic measures, but the study reveals that in practice parents, especially low-income parents, rank schools based on other criteria: distance from home, availability of extended school hours and after-school programs, and certain extracurriculars like football and band.

This may occur because parents don’t have enough information about the schools in their city. As RAND scholars Andrew McEachin, Brian Stecher, and Grace Evans write:

The vast majority of school districts do not provide families with robust school quality information—in part because school quality is difficult to measure and portray clearly to parents and students. Even districts with large choice programs, like Denver and New Orleans, often struggle to provide families with the information they need to make optimal decisions. Research also shows that districts don’t always do a good job of disseminating information and explaining options to certain groups—low-income parents and those whose children are first-generation Americans, for example.

But regardless of the reason, parents generally prefer geographic proximity. “Basically, people want good schools in their neighborhoods,” says Chingos. “Efforts to offer them more choices need to worry about transportation and the availability of good schools so that we’re not just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

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