Donald Trump said a few things recently about education that are, well, perplexing.
One set of comments left anyone who knows anything about the past few decades of public education reform wondering how much the Republican presidential nominee knows about it, while the other raised questions about where Trump is getting education policy from — besides his daughter, Ivanka.
Trump was in Milwaukee on Tuesday, where he spoke broadly about what kind of education policy he supports. Specifically, he said:
“On education, it is time to have school choice, merit pay for teachers, and to end the tenure policies that hurt good teachers and reward bad teachers. We are going to put students and parents first.”
As lawyer and blogger Stephen Dyer noted, it is hard to imagine why Trump would say “it is time” for school choice. This past June, the charter school movement — a pillar of school choice — celebrated its 25th anniversary, and more than 6,500 of these publicly funded schools now educate between 2½ and 3 million students around the country.
Another central part of the choice movement are private school vouchers. Trump, whether he knew it or not, was speaking in the city where school vouchers began in 1990. Vouchers — and other similar programs — essentially use public funds to pay for private school tuition. There are now nearly 30 states with a voucher or tax-credit program or something similar.
Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, the country’s longest-running voucher program, created ostensibly to provide quality school choices for children from low-income families, has not only failed to bridge the achievement gap but has also, critics say, harmed traditional public schools by siphoning off resources. A recent study of voucher schools in Milwaukee by University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh Professor Michael R. Ford, a voucher supporter and a former vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, found that 41 percent of private schools that accepted voucher students between 1991 and 2015 closed. He wrote on his blog:
These 102 schools either closed after having their voucher revenue cut off by the Department of Public Instruction, or simply shut their doors. The failure rate for entrepreneurial start-up schools is even worse: 67.8 percent.
He also wrote on his blog and in a Policy Studies Journal article with Fredrik O. Andersson:
“The larger, perhaps more troubling legacy of the first 25 years of the Milwaukee voucher experience is the problem of externalities. … When a school closes, students and parents must find new schools, student records may be lost, student achievement will likely suffer, and the public investment in failed institutions is lost.
Other voucher programs have had their own troubles; in some places, there is little or no oversight of the private schools that accept voucher students and some have discriminatory practices. In North Carolina, for example, the Charlotte Observer reported this month that [a]t least four faith-based private schools in Mecklenburg County receive taxpayer money through a state voucher program while sections of their handbooks prohibit lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students from enrolling” in that state, however, the “discrimination is legal,” the paper says.
Trump’s call for merit pay for teachers raises the question of whether he knows that school districts have been experimenting with such systems for years — and that there is no conclusive evidence that they improve student achievement. His call to end tenure policies that “hurt good teachers and reward bad teachers” appears to ignore that a number of states have either eliminated or changed tenure policies — and no place has reported a jump in student achievement as a result. A 2014 study by the nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington said that most teachers who struggle leave the profession before they get tenure.
Trump has backed school choice in other cities as well. For the record, school choice has failed to close the achievement gap in any part of the country.
Another set of Trump comments relate to who is crafting his education policy. Trump hasn’t actually talked very much about K-12 education, but when he was speaking to the Detroit Economic Club on Aug. 8, he said:
When we reform our tax, trade, energy and regulatory policies, we will open a new chapter in American prosperity.
We can use this new wealth to rebuild our military and our infrastructure. As part of this new future, we will also be rolling out proposals to increase choice and reduce cost in child care, offering much-needed relief to American families. I will unveil my plan on this in the coming weeks that I have been working on with my daughter Ivanka and an incredible team of experts. Likewise, our education reforms will help parents send their kids to a school of their choice.
So Ivanka Trump (the product of private schools) is helping her father craft public education reform. As for the team of experts working with them, Trump didn’t say who, and neither would members of Trump’s team when asked. Hope Hicks, press secretary to Trump, said in an email: “Thank you for your interest. We will let you know when we have more information to share.”
In the past, the only name Trump has mentioned in connection with education policy (besides Ivanka) has been Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. In March 2016, Trump said at a news conference that he had spent time talking with Carson.
“I was most impressed with his views on education. It’s a strength. It’s a tremendous strength,” he said, adding that Carson is “going to be involved with us,” particularly on health and education. Carson has had his own challenges in discussing education facts and policy, as you can read here.