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Trump touts ‘winning’ D.C. school voucher program but ignores new study slamming it

President Trump appears at an education event with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the White House on May 3. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Trump on Wednesday surprised a group of young D.C. students who were at the White House to meet the vice president and education secretary, and he touted the “winning” federally funded school voucher program in Washington. He failed to mention a new Education Department study that found that students in the program get lower standardized test scores than those in what he called “failing” public schools.

Trump called the event, scheduled during National Charter Schools Week, “beautiful” and “very exciting.” Students from public and private schools and family members were there to meet Vice President Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  Both DeVos and Trump have criticized traditional public schools while praising alternatives, including charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and voucher/voucher-like programs that allow public money to be used for private and religious school. Their support for the latter is in contrast with the Obama administration, which backed charters but not vouchers.

Trump’s schedule did not include a stop in the Roosevelt Room, where the event was being held, but  he joked that when he heard DeVos was there, he thought he would come to interrupt her, and “maybe I’ll be allowed to say a few words.”

In his remarks, he took the opportunity to slam D.C. public schools while talking up the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded school voucher program in the country. He said to the kids, according to a White House transcript:

So yesterday I said that our spending bill was a win for the American people, which is exactly what it was — an amazing day.  And this is what winning for young children and kids from all over the country looks like.  The Opportunity Scholarship program that we’re funding allows families in the inner city of our nation’s capital to leave failing public schools and attend a private school, making an extraordinary difference in these incredible young lives.  You’re so lucky.  Great.  You’re happy about it?  Huh?  That’s great.
The results speak for themselves.  Ninety-eight percent of scholarship recipients represent their high school diplomas, and they’re really very, very special.  They go into tremendous successes.  So I think you’re going to all be very, very successful.  You have a big start, right?  Great start.

Trump was directing his “lucky” remarks to  students who are enrolled in the voucher program. Trump is a big supporter of school choice, as are Pence and DeVos, and he was pleased that Congress agreed to extend it for several more years in the negotiated budget.

Pence also did not mention the study on vouchers — which provide direct government subsidies to parents for use at private and religious schools — when he said:

Now, we’re here today because this week Congress is poised to pass legislation that President Trump will sign into law, a spending bill that will give new life and funding to the D.C. Opportunities Scholarship Program, which is the only federally funded voucher program in the country. e study in school choice success.

The study, released by the Education Department’s research division, found that students in the program performed worse on standardized tests within a year after entering D.C. private schools than peers who did not participate. It said in part:

Nation’s only federally funded voucher program has negative effect on student achievement, study finds

The study, released Thursday by the Education Department’s research division, follows several other recent studies of state-funded vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio that suggested negative effects on student achievement. Critics are seizing on this data as they try to counter Trump’s push to direct public dollars to private schools.

Choice advocates argue that test scores are not the only way to judge a school’s quality, which is true, though they are happy to tout scores when they are higher than those at traditional public schools. There have been studies showing that voucher recipients tend to do better on these measures, including in the District; a 2010 federal analysis on the D.C. voucher program showed that 91 percent of students who used a voucher to attend a private school graduated on time, compared with 70 percent of those without vouchers.

What is the origin of  Trump’s assertion that 98 percent of voucher program students graduate? It’s not either of the federally funded studies of the voucher program. It may have come from an April 27 post on the website of the American Federation for Children, a lobbying and advocacy group founded and once headed by DeVos that took issue with the Education Department’s study on the voucher program. It said in part:

We know from the previous OSP evaluation (2010) that 91 percent of children who used their opportunity scholarships graduated from high school, 21 percent higher than those who were offered, but did not receive a scholarship. Recent data compiled by the program administrator shows a 2015-2016 graduation rate of 98 percent. 86 percent of these students were accepted into a 2-or-4 year college with 5 percent entering the military or technical school. 6,600 children from low-income families have been awarded scholarships out of nearly 20,000 that have applied since the program began. Parents clearly support the program.”

So it was the administrator of the scholarship program that came up with the 98 percent graduation rate for 2015-2016.

Trump also talked up the spending bill in Congress just negotiated with Democrats as “an amazing win for the American people,”  even though it does not include some key Trump proposals, such as dedicated money to build a border wall, and keeps the U.S. government open only until September.

Trump praised his education secretary while explaining why he decided to join the event:

“You know, I wasn’t supposed to be here. It wasn’t on my schedule. But when I heard what was going on with Betsy, who is doing such a great job, I said, ‘Well, I’ll come in and I’ll interrupt Betsy, and maybe I’ll be allowed to say a few words.’ But she’s a great woman and doing a fantastic job. Congratulations to all of you.”

Here’s more to read:

Three big problems with school ‘choice’ that supporters don’t like to talk about

Betsy DeVos said, ‘There isn’t really any Common Core any more.’ Um, yes, there is.