We caught up with Harvard professor Martin West, a member of our research advisory board and editor-in-chief of Education Next, at the Association for Education Policy and Finance conference in Washington, D.C., last week. He shared his thoughts with FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan on school choice, Title I portability and the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal that President Donald Trump has advanced.
Donald Trump’s preliminary budget proposes deep cuts for education but includes new money, about $1.4 billion, for both charter schools and private school choice. How do you think that money would be best spent?
I think they’re wise to put some increased funding in the charter schools program, $126 million. Over the past several years, the federal government has begun providing money directly to high performing charter management organizations, those that can document strong results, to replicate their models or to expand existing schools to serve additional grades. I think that’s proven to be a good use of federal dollars. So the department will be able to do more of that, in addition to continuing to make grants to states to create new charter schools from scratch.
What about private school choice?
The Trump administration’s budget also puts forward an idea of using $250 million for private school choice. It doesn’t say much about what that would look like, but I’d hope that what they would do is to concentrate that money in particular cities interested in adopting a policy that would allow families more choice of schools, including the option to attend a private school. So these would be places that are willing and interested in experimenting with that approach to providing families with choice and are not doing just because the federal government is requiring it. I would hope it would be a small number of places, so that money would be concentrated and we could actually learn about what happens; $250 million spread evenly like peanut butter across the country is not going to accomplish very much.
What do you think of the proposal in the budget to put $1 billion in Title I money that would follow students, opening the door for what’s known as Title I portability?
The language in the budget proposal says it would be an increase of $1 billion in Title I to encourage states and districts to adopt student-based funding systems where money, including state, local and federal funds, follows the child to the school that they attend within the public sector.
That language is a bit confusing, because Title I is a formula grant program where districts receive fixed allocations based on the number of poor students they serve, as well as the overall funding levels in the state. Title I is not a competitive grant program, but when the proposal uses the language of “encouraging” states and districts it sounds more like a competitive grant program. So I think we have to get more clarity in the coming days and week about what exactly this proposal means.
Could this be connected to the school funding pilot within the Every Student Success Act?
There is a provision within ESSA known as the weighted student funding pilot that allows up to 50 districts to apply for permission to adopt weighted student funding systems or student-based budgeting where dollars do follow the child to whatever school they attend.
Traditionally one of the barriers to the adoption of those types of systems by school districts has been the lack of the ability to include federal dollars, which need to be allocated to schools by the rules of the different formula streams. And so, the idea here is that this pilot program was designed to encourage some districts to model out a new approach to administering federal aid. It sounds to me as if the administration wants to encourage more districts to participate in that pilot, to take it seriously.
Another approach to school choice has been tax credits. There’s some talk of that being included in the administration's tax reform bill. Do you think that’s a good approach?
I think the question is whether it’s a politically feasible approach, which is why the administration is interested in it. Changes to the tax code can be made via the reconciliation process, and this would avoid an up or down vote on it as a stand-alone proposal and the possibility of a Senate filibuster. I think the interest at the federal level in using the tax code as a way of doing something major in the way of school choice is as much a political as a policy-based preference.
That being said, the approach of using the tax code to encourage donations to organizations that grant scholarships to low-income students is one that’s been used successfully at the state level. The question for us as researchers is, does it make sense to pursue this same approach at the federal level.
I think there are some serious design questions that they would have to address if they move forward with this at the federal level.
For example, what would the overall number of tax credits that could be awarded be? If you have no cap, you could, in theory, preside over the greatest federalization of education finance in the history of the United States, because the federal government would be the one taking in less revenue as a result of offering these tax credits. It would be the states and local governments that would not be spending to educate as many children in public schools.
That’s right. You would essentially be putting more federal money toward education, rather than less.
At the state and local level, these programs tend to be money savers because the average scholarship amount students receive is often considerably less than what is spent on them in total state and local spending in public schools. If you offer the credit at the federal level, that dynamic changes.
So without a cap, this would really be a dramatic change. If you add a cap, say the $20 billion figure that President Trump has said he wants to devote to school choice, then you have to figure out how to allocate the available dollars under that cap to different states, and you have to figure out a way to do it that is predictable from one year to the next, such that there aren’t huge fluctuations that would cause the programs to ebb and flow dramatically.
One of the things school choice programs need is certainty about market conditions, so that new schools can open with an expectation that there will be demand for their seats. You’re not going to see that if there’s uncertainty from one year to the next.
OMB Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters the Trump budget would zero out afterschool programs because there is no evidence these programs work. There are several studies that show positive results for these programs, even though 21st Century Learning Centers programs that the federal government funds haven't raised student achievement. At the same time, Trump’s budget supports private school choice, where the evidence is decidedly mixed. As a researcher who has advocated for evidence-based solutions how do you square that decision?
When it comes to the research both on afterschool programs and on school choice, we don’t always have answers to all of the questions we want in order to inform policy. In the case of afterschool programs, as you mentioned, the official evaluation of the federally funded 21st Century afterschool program didn’t show effects on students’ academic outcomes, at least. That doesn’t mean that afterschooling can’t be an effective way of trying to benefit students not only academically but more so in other ways. But what we don’t know is how best to award federal dollars to get that to happen.
In the case of private school choice, you’re right that there’s a mixed track record, though I would say mostly positive if you look at the full body of evidence about what happens when you allow a student to move from a public school to a private school using a voucher. Recently we’ve seen some negative finding on that question that are beginning to raise some doubts.
Does that give you pause?
It does. But, regardless of those recent patterns, that question—what happens when a student uses a voucher to move from a public to a private school—is only a very small part of what we want to know to decide about the merits of private school choice.
At least as important is what effects the injection of more competition would have on the overall quality of opportunities available to all students. It could be that competition would drive higher levels of performance and benefit students in ways that are not evident when you just study what happens immediately when students move from a public to an existing private school. It could also be the case that the adoption of a private school choice program would lead to higher levels of segregation, higher levels of inequity, and resources being drained from public schools.
We haven’t had the opportunity to study those questions in the United States when it comes to a private school choice program operating at scale, at least until very recently, when you had statewide programs adopted in Indiana and Louisiana.
I think a good case could be made that it is worth trying to experiment with new ways of trying to provide opportunities to families, to do so in a way that allows them to be subjected to rigorous evaluation. It wouldn’t be right to characterize the administration’s interest in school choice as flying in the face of what we know.