What presidents do in their first few weeks in office can be telling, as it often signals the issues that have their attention and will be priorities for their administrations.
So it’s notable that President Donald Trump, in one of his first acts as the nation’s chief executive, proclaimed a “National School Choice Week” and called upon states and municipalities to work toward expanding educational options “for every child in America.”
That’s a nice sentiment. Now the hard work begins.
It’s rather easy, after all, to call for sweeping new programs from the campaign trail, where Trump proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program to give low-income students the opportunity to seek better school situations. It’s harder to get Congress, even one controlled in both chambers by fellow Republicans, to commit taxpayer money to such grandiose ideas.
And even if Trump could wave a magic wand and make it so, that $20 billion would barely scratch the surface of what is needed.
That’s because the lack of choices that hold back individuals from low-income backgrounds isn’t limited to where they go to school — which is why we can put aside arguments about whether vouchers are even a good investment (the research findings are mixed) in the first place.
Let’s start with the most obvious and influential lack of choice: Students don’t get to choose their parents. That’s why, even if we agree that rational and responsible parents should have the ability to make more choices when it comes to their children’s educations, we still need a safety net for those who didn’t luck out in the parental lottery, or whose parents simply do not have the social, intellectual or economic resources to consider and select from a range of school choices.
Add to that the myriad other socio-economic-emotional obstacles that conspire to steal choices away from students before they can even make them. Transience. Physical ailments and injuries. Mental health challenges. Learning disabilities. Transportation insecurity. True educational choice isn’t just about having the option to choose from the best of several schools — it’s having the support to overcome whatever challenges might prevent a student from getting there.
Add to that the lack of post-secondary choices that low-income students have. Research consistently shows that low-income students are more likely to end up at for-profit universities with low graduation rates, or at community colleges from which successful transfers to four-year colleges are rare. “In part because of disparities like this,” a 2015 Hechinger Report paper concluded, “students from high-income families are a staggering eight times more likely to get bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24 than from low-income families.” That’s up from six times more likely in 1970.
And add to that the overwhelming lack of choices for adult learners who wish to pursue a high school diploma if they missed the opportunity to do so when they were a child. In most places across the country, the best an adult learner can hope for is a GED — which is a better-than-nothing option in most cases but, as Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has pointed out “recipients still face limited opportunity” due to deficits in noncognitive skills such as persistence, motivation and reliability, as well as social stigmas surrounding this “degree-of-last-resort.” Most adults simply have no options for earning a high school diploma, because public education funding in most states is reserved for individuals under the age of 22.
Where’s that leave us? In a world where true educational choice is a far bigger issue than whether low-income students can access a few additional options via charters and vouchers. So if school choice is, as the new administration has indicated, a priority, it’s going to take a lot more than a proclamation to make it truly happen — it’s going to take a complete re-imagining of what “school choice” actually means.