At a town-hall debate in Milwaukee, Donald Trump told moderator Anderson Cooper that the federal government’s top three functions are security, health care, and education. When Cooper reminded Trump that he had previously been against the federal government’s involvement in education, Trump stammered, “The concept of the country is the concept that we have to have education within the country, and we have to get rid of Common Core and it should be brought to the state level.”
A none-too-interested novice to conservatism, Trump has made more than his fair share of poor attempts to communicate ideas he doesn’t understand. But in this case he effectively, if inarticulately, highlighted the conservative conundrum in K–12 education: We say that it’s very important — and that the federal government should do less about it.
But while he may sound conventional on the stump, Senator Cruz has been one of the most innovative education legislators on Capitol Hill. He has introduced two bold bills, one to allow Title I federal funds to follow low-income students to private schools, and one to create a universal education savings account (ESA) program in Washington, D.C. A policy entrepreneur could help lead conservatives out of their K–12 conundrum by connecting these dots and calling for portability of Title I funds to state ESA programs.
School choice has been around for a quarter-century, but ESAs are a relatively new frontier. Until now, school choice has largely been about helping parents shift their kid from school A to school B. ESAs give families direct control over the public funds for their child’s education, allowing parents to customize their child’s education by stitching together traditional schools and different education providers, including tutors, therapists, and online and blended models. Two years ago, there was only one ESA program in America, but this fall an estimated 1 million children will be eligible for ESAs in five states.
ESAs even hold promise to help students with disabilities who don’t use them. Evaluating Florida’s John McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, a voucher program, Marcus Winters and Jay P. Greene found that the competitive pressure improved outcomes for students with disabilities who stayed in the public system.
Republicans would be on the side of giving more money to low-income families of students with disabilities so that parents could customize their children’s education.
Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee followed Arizona’s lead, but last year Nevada broke new ground by adopting the first universal statewide ESA program, making more than 450,000 students eligible. Although it’s currently tied up in court, this program may point the way toward a renaissance in school choice. Traditional choice programs are hitting a supply-side ceiling; traditional vouchers allow existing private schools to fill empty seats but aren’t enough to help them grow or launch new schools. The flexibility inherent in ESAs could lead to a supply-side boom for innovative educational-service providers that look quite different from brick-and-mortar private schools.
The catch is that a universal ESA program runs a significant risk of economic segregation. Right now, middle-income students in Nevada would receive approximately $5,200 in state funds, and students who live below 185 percent of the federal poverty line would receive $5,700. That extra $500 might prove too little in a state where median private-school tuition runs close to $8,000. It’s ironic that the Title I status quo actually prevents Nevada’s ESA program from being more progressive. But if Congress made Title I portable to ESAs, it would increase the premium for those low-income students to $1,500.
Now, there would be objections, from the right and from the left, to Title I ESA portability. Folks on the right may fear that the strings attached to federal funds could stymie innovation and threaten privacy. This is a valid concern, but a smart proposal would trade federal compliance requirements for the promise of state academic and financial oversight.
For their part, Democrats would trot out the familiar trope that Republicans are trying to “privatize public education,” and it would carry more sting with Title I on the table. After all, Title I funds flow to the districts that serve the poorest students, and letting that money flow directly to ESAs for low-income students would hit the poorest districts the hardest.
But up until now, the only idea on the table has been to let that money go to a voucher that still might not be enough to cover tuition at a traditional private school. ESA portability would be a game-changer because it enables Republicans to move from defense to offense. Republicans would be on the side of giving more money to low-income families of students with disabilities so that parents could customize their children’s education, and Democrats would be against it. For a movement that has a hard time articulating what it’s for in education, that would certainly be a start.
— Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.