A Primer to School Choice: What’s in Store for K-12 Education under the Trump Administration?
July 22, 2017
Although school choice is currently a hot topic in the news, the alternative approach to K-12 education is not always well understood. This primer to school choice will explain what school choice means, present the school choice movement and its surrounding debate, and connect the ideology to current federal policy priorities outlined by the Trump Administration.
What is School Choice?
School choice is the ideology that believes that parents should be able to select the K-12 schooling option that best fits their child’s educational needs. According to EdChoice, an education reform organization, “school choice allows public funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs.”  There are a number of different types of school choice, but the most well-known U.S. reforms are voucher programs, charter schools, and education savings accounts. 
The School Choice Movement
The school choice movement was born in the 1950s when economist Milton Friedman proposed a new approach to education. He believed that government schools are inefficient because they lack the incentive to respond to consumer demand, and as a result, do not seek the information or motivation needed to deliver the best education to students. Instead of allowing the government to allocate children to schools based on their residential location, Friedman believed that the government should be removed completely from allocation decisions.
Instead of the government deciding where students should go to school, Friedman proposed that parents should be the ones making that decision. He argued that parents are more motivated than the government to make choices based on what is in the child’s best educational interest, and they also possess better information than officials do about what their child needs in a school. 
Today, the school choice movement in the United States manifests itself in a few different types of reforms. As mentioned earlier, the largest three types of reforms include school vouchers, charter schools, and education savings accounts.
The school voucher program provides funding in the form of a credit to families who can use the funds to pay for tuition at private schools. Currently, there are 25 voucher programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Charter schools are schools that receive public funds but are independently operated. Oftentimes charters are operated by non-profit and for-profit entities, and they are accountable to public authorities by a varying amount of degree. Finally, education savings accounts are savings accounts set up by a state with a fixed amount of money inside of them that allow parents finance a range of educational costs approved by the state.
The School Choice Debate
As with any major policy initiative, there are supporters and critics of the school choice movement. Supporters believe that all parents should have the right to choose the best school for their child, and by giving parents this liberty, it causes failing public schools to have greater incentive to reform due to competition from other institutions in the marketplace.
Furthermore, supporters believe that students of all socioeconomic classes should have the opportunity to escape failing public schools and attend a private school even if they do not have the financial means to do so. By investing public dollars in some of the above-mentioned types of school choice reforms, supporters believe that this ideal can be made possible.
Opponents of the school choice movement argue that the public school system should not be run like a business, as choice supporters advocate for with creating marketplace competition because students are not products. Furthermore, critics say that by simply removing public funds and students from the traditional public education system, the government is failing to fix the problems public schools face and are causing the system to collapse further.
Critics also argue that investing public dollars into private schools that may be religious in nature violates the church-state separation integral to American society, and they are also worried that public dollars could be misused under the choice model since choice schools are not accountable to the public the same way that traditional public schools are. 
School Choice under the Trump Administration
It is President Trump’s and Secretary DeVos’ policy priority to expand school choice. Trump and DeVos have openly expressed great disapproval of public schools and believe that the way to reform the education system in the United States is through the school choice movement.
Most Republicans are big choice supporters, so Trump and DeVos’ support for the movement does not come at a surprise. DeVos represents the “free-market believer” members of the school choice debate who want very little regulation over the education market so the market forces of supply and demand are able to autonomously drive the system to equilibrium. 
In order to bolster school choice, President Trump’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 Department of Education budget allocates over one billion dollars to school choice efforts. This FY18 initiative is called Creating New Education Options through School Choice, and it offers $1.4 billion dollars toward new public and private school choice opportunities.
This $1.4 billion increase in school choice spending breaks down as follows: $1 billion increase to Title I funding for a new grant program, Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS), $250 million increase for Education Innovation and Research programs, and $167 million increase for Charter Schools Grants program. 
If approved by Congress, DeVos’ Department of Education will spend an unprecedented amount of money to expand school choice. It is important to note however, that Trump’s proposed education budget has faced criticism by both sides of the aisle in Congress, so only time will tell what the true level of investment this administration will be permitted to use to expand school choice options.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.
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