The Trump Administration has consistently made it clear that their top priority in education is expanding school choices for parents and their children. While the school choice movement has been around for decades and many states have implemented state-funded programs, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have moved the issue to center stage. Now, the focus is on what changes, if any, the new Congress is willing to make.
DC Opportunity Scholarship Program Reauthorized: The FY2017 omnibus appropriation passed in May 2017 reauthorized the District of Columbia (DC) Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) voucher program — the only K-12 voucher program funded with federal dollars. SOAR, originally signed into law by President Bush in 2004, provides funds for low-income D.C. families to support traditional public schools, public charter schools, and opportunity scholarships to private schools. The Obama administration had proposed to phase out the program and opposed its expansion and reauthorization. The SOAR program is now authorized at $45 million. DC reports that about 1,200 students – 97 percent are African-American and Hispanic – currently participate in the program, and the average family income is under $22,000 per year.
President’s Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) Budget Proposal: On May 23, 2017, the White House announced its budget for the coming fiscal year. Among the changes to the U.S. Department of Education budget were specific provisions to support school choice. The FY2018 budget added:
- Title I Funding: A record $1 billion increase was proposed in the Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support a specific program — the Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) program. FOCUS supports the establishment and expansion of systems within public school districts to use weighted funding formulas based on student characteristics and allow the combined local, State, and Federal funds allocated for students to follow them to the school of the family’s choice. The program builds on a new pilot program included in ESSA which allows up to 50 school districts to adopt a weighted student funding formula that would combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.
- Competitive Grants: $250 million is provided for competitive awards through the Education Innovation and Research program to provide scholarships for students from low-income families to attend the private school of their parents’ choice.
- Charter Schools: $168 million is added to the charter school program currently authorized under ESSA.
2. Tax Reform and School Choice Authorization Bill(s): The Congress is also considering options through new authorizing bills that could provide states with flexibility to use funds to provide vouchers and other funding portability to attend schools that families choose, as well as expanding tax-advantaged education savings accounts and/or tax credits for contributions made directly to private scholarships.
- Tax Reform: Congress is working on a tax reform bill that could include funding for new tax credits for individual and corporate contributions to scholarship programs, education savings accounts or both to provide school choice funding options to individual families.
- Stand Alone Bills: Members of Congress have introduced individual bills in the House and Senate and while these bills are less likely to be considered due to the challenge of passing stand-alone legislation, one or more could be used as the basis for the structure of provisions placed into the tax bill or to guide policy making in the FY2018 or future funding measures. Bills such as: H.R. 610; H.R. 691/S. 235, Creating Hope and Opportunities for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act; and, S. 1294, Native American Education Opportunity Act are several of the bills introduced this year that create block grants for vouchers, opportunities for tax credits and/or target specific populations of students such as Native American Indians or military families.
While the Administration is still working on the details of its proposals and Congress has not yet acted on those it has introduced, the Administration’s public stance has set big expectations – using terms like ‘most ambitious expansion of education in our nation’s history’ and ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’. Now, we’ll see if Congress has both the political will and the votes to deliver.