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Every presidential election is alive with hot button issues — from gun control and healthcare to economic and foreign policy. These issues and each candidate’s stance on them are inevitably polarizing. This leaves individuals wondering, “How will this affect me?” Currently, among the myriad of changes that will accompany President-elect Donald Trump’s transition into office, education has become a key talking point.

Trump is a proponent of school vouchers. The lynch pin of his education policy will redirect $20 billion of existing federal dollars to school choice, according to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign website. School choice is designed to allow students to take public funding to any school, public or private. Another key feature of Trump’s education policy urges states to each contribute $110 billion toward school choice. Investment in education is important for the future, but how those dollars are allocated matters. What exactly does the President-elect’s plan mean for college students now and going forward?

The lynch pin of president trump's education policy will redirect 20 billion dollars of existing federal budget to school choice

The History of School Vouchers

School vouchers are not a new concept. The idea of using public funding to send students to private schools has existed in the United States for more than 100 years, but the idea has not been without contention.

In 2002, school vouchers became the central issue in a U.S. Supreme Court case. Ohio moved to create a school voucher program that would support parents who wanted to move their children to private schools. The majority of the private schools in the state had a religious affiliation, which raised the question of whether the program would represent a violation of church and state. Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the state’s voucher program would be in direct violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. This clause bans the government from establishing or favoring a particular religion. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5-4) Ohio’s voucher program to be constitutional in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case.

Today, state-funded school voucher programs are run in Washington, D.C. and 14 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and Great Schools, including:

  • Arizona: Empowerment Scholarship Account
  • Arkansas: Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities
  • Florida: John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program
  • Georgia: Special Needs Scholarship Program
  • Indiana: Indiana Choice Scholarship Program
  • Louisiana: Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program and School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities
  • Maine: Town Tuitioning Program
  • Mississippi: Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship for Students with Dyslexia Program
  • North Carolina: Opportunity Scholarship Program and Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities
  • Ohio: Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Educational Choice Scholarship Program, Autism Scholarship Program and Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program
  • Oklahoma: Lindsey Nicole Henry Students with Disabilities Scholarship Program
  • Utah: Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program
  • Vermont: Town Tuitioning Program
  • Washington, D.C.: D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Racine Parental Choice Program and Wisconsin Parental Choice Program

The jurisdiction and features of each state’s school voucher program differ. Some states, like Wisconsin, have a statewide school voucher program. Other states, like Louisiana limit the program’s jurisdiction to vouchers based on income or special needs only. Additionally, some states place a cap on the number of vouchers that can be awarded and in what amount, while others have no limit on either the number awarded or the dollar amount. Other states, including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, offer parents tax credits if their children go to either public or private school.

Vouchers aim to support parents' and students' choice of any educational institution

While the structure of these programs varies, the goal is the same. Vouchers aim to support parents’ and students’ choice of any educational institution. In most cases, both schools and students participating in a voucher program will have to meet certain criteria. For example, a school that enrolls a voucher student would have to meet state standards for performance. Likewise, students have to reach certain criteria related to income, disability, military family status, or attendance at a poorly performing public school. Increased competition driving down costs and improving academic achievement is the ultimate intended consequence of school vouchers.

Arguments in Favor of and Against School Vouchers

School vouchers have staunch supporters and opponents, each group marshaling a number of arguments to prove their point. School vouchers are often referred to as school choice, and choice is usually the first argument in favor of vouchers.

Advocates for this policy believe vouchers allow parents to select the highest performing schools for their children, private or public, regardless of income. Supporters also believe vouchers will drive both private and public schools to maintain and improve performance and compete with one another to attract the dollars attached to voucher students. Arguably, competition would serve to drive down education costs. Those in favor of school vouchers also contend that education dollars could be better spent in the private sector, rather than on government-funded institutions.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school vouchers are constitutional, opponents of this education policy still argue that government funds should not be used to send students to private schools, the majority of which are religious institutions.

79 percent of private school students attend a school with a religious affiliation

The majority of private school students, 79 percent, attend a school with a religious affiliation, according to the Council for American Private Education. Those against school vouchers argue that vouchers do not actually improve school, and by extension student, performance. Instead of fostering competition and improved performance, vouchers drain much-needed funds from public schools.

Opponents also point out that vouchers often do not cover the full cost of private school tuition. Instead of increasing opportunities for the low-income families, vouchers go to families with the means to afford a private education and take funds from the public schools attended by children from low-income families. Those who argue against school vouchers also raise concerns that private schools are not held as accountable as public schools when it comes to performance.

What the Numbers Say

Over the past several decades, a number of school voucher studies analyzing student achievement, access, and cost have been performed. No one definitive study in support or opposition of school vouchers has emerged. In fact, the results from research have been debated and is oftentimes ambiguous. The varied results are in part due to the difference in structure between voucher programs across the country.

Some organizations will look see research as unequivocally showing the benefits or detriments of school vouchers. One organization, EdChoice, points to more than 10 randomized control trial studies with results in favor of vouchers. Meanwhile, the National Education Association speaks to studies that show vouchers fail to improve access to quality schools, improve student performance, or drive down costs in Cleveland, Florida, Milwaukee, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.

These findings are hardly the only evidence for and against school vouchers, though. Researchers have even pointed out more long-term studies could serve to better uncover the effects of school choice.

Very few long-term studies into how much voucher programs influence college enrollment have been done, but a study from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings and the Harvard Kennedy School examined the impact of the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation on college enrollment within three years of students’ high school graduation date.

Overall, the study found vouchers had a statistically insignificant impact on college enrollment, but the researchers’ findings indicated school voucher programs increased college enrollment in African American students by 24 percent. However, the researchers stressed results from other voucher programs could be significantly different.

Though this study provides evidence that vouchers could help with college enrollment numbers, not everyone agrees with the study’s methodology and results. A paper published by the National Education Policy Center seeks to demonstrate the study’s flaws. This disagreement serves to further highlight the contention surrounding school vouchers. Enough evidence either for or against vouchers has yet to amount for a definitive statement of benefits or detriments.

Betsy DeVos and Education Vouchers

Much of Trump’s education policy will be shaped by his Secretary of Education. Most of the President-elect’s cabinet nominations and picks have been met with surprise and criticism, and education is no exception. Betsy DeVos is a conservative billionaire and Republican donor with a long history in the education sector, though she would be the first person without an education degree to head the Department of Education.

secretary of education betsy devos has been a vocal supporter of education vouchers

For years, DeVos has been a vocal supporter of education vouchers. She also supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publically funded schools. DeVos chairs the American Federation for Children, an organization dedicated to school choice and charter schools. She also played a significant role in helping pass the first charter school legislation in Michigan.

DeVos’s appointment as education secretary has drawn mixed and strong responses. Critics are concerned that her policies will be a detriment to public schools, leaving behind children who need those institutions. Others have praised DeVos as a strong pick with the motivation to push education policies that would help all children. Though not directly related to school choice, others wondered where DeVos stands on Common Core. She did later confirm that her stance was against Common Core.

A Closer Look at Donald Trump’s Education Policies

When trying to determine where a presidential candidate will stand on education, it is helpful to look at their own history. For example, Trump did not attend any public institutions during his primary and secondary education years.

The $20 billion federal voucher program is the central point of Trump’s education plan, but what else does the President-elect plan to do when it comes to the country’s education system? Many of Trump’s policies were unclear or contradictory during his campaign, but as his presidential term draws nearer, parts of his education plan are becoming clearer.

Aside from promising a vast voucher program, Trump has also spoke about major changes to the Department of Education. He remarked that he would like to dismantle the department entirely, but now it seems he will focus on cutting spending and paring down the department. For example, the Trump administration could get rid of the department’s Office of Civil Rights. Common Core is also at the forefront of education changes Trump aims to make. At the heart of his policies, Trump hopes school choice and less federal control will create a competitive market that improves public schools and the education system as a whole.

When it comes to vouchers, Washington, D.C. could be the first place Trump starts his campaign to expand this strategy. The nation’s capital is home to the only federally funded voucher program. The program, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, began in 2004. Since then, more than 19,800 students have applied for vouchers through the program. More than 6,600 students have received vouchers, and 1,244 students are enrolled in school through the program for the 2015 to 2016 school year, according to the OSP website.

President Obama has been opposed to school voucher programs during his time in office, but a Trump presidency will likely breathe fresh life into D.C.’s voucher program.

Trump's presidency will likely breathe fresh life into D.C.s voucher program

What This Means for College Students

Much of the voucher and education debate focuses on primary education, kindergarten through grade 12, but that is not to say college students will not be affected. Among the many promises voucher programs make, school choice is intended to help improve college enrollment rates. If this holds true, voucher programs could help prospective college students. Thus far, it seems vouchers have little effect on college enrollment, but the expansion of programs could change that. On the other hand, if critics’ fears over damage to public schools come true, voucher programs could hurt some students’ pursuit of higher education.

Trump’s stance on student loans could be one of the biggest changes college students can expect to see. The President-elect aims to institute an income-based student loan repayment policy, but he has yet to announce how he would make this change. Trump’s plan would limit student loan repayments to 12.5 percent of monthly income and forgive any remaining debt after 15 years of repayment, according to CNN.

The current student loan forgiveness plan erases debt after 20 years of repayment. Student loans affect college students during their academic careers and beyond. There is a total of $1.26 trillion dollars of student loan debt in the United States carried by 44.2 million Americans, according to Student Loan Hero. Trump has also argued against the government making a profit from student loans. It has yet to be made clear how Trump will execute his education reform plans.

While it is unlikely Trump would completely strip down the Department of Education despite his interest in doing so, he could dismantle several major elements of it. There has been speculation that the Trump administration will dismantle the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces civil rights laws within the education sector. During the Obama administration, the OCR became very active in the fight against sexual assault on college campuses. Dramatic changes to the OCR could change how sexual assault is handled by higher education institutions, something that will affect all college students.

The Trump administration’s education policies, whether enacted in full or in part, will have widespread ramifications for K-12 education and higher education. College students may not see immediate changes in their day-to-day lives, but over time, vouchers, student loan repayment, and the structure of the Department of Education will change the overall education system in the United States.

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