Politics & Policy

A Word of Caution to the Trump Administration on School Choice

(Dreamstime image: Syda Prods.)
A block grant could end up increasing federal power over what should be a local matter.

The proposed appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary has been rightly celebrated by advocates for school choice around the country. As head of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has been instrumental in the movement to give parents better educational opportunities for their children for decades. So how will the new administration set about expanding access to choice? One idea that has been floated by President-elect Trump is a $20 billion block grant to states to fund educational-choice programs.

Such an infusion of federal funding could be exciting for the choice movement. States that have previously been unable to implement school-choice programs may be able to do so, and states with existing programs may find expansion easier. But a very important caveat comes with increased federal funding: It is likely to make the states beholden to the federal government in a sector that has traditionally been relatively free from federal involvement. While education-reform advocates may feel safe under Secretary DeVos and a president who seems to be amenable to school choice, there will inevitably come a time in the future when a less friendly administration takes the reins of power or, even worse, a time in the more immediate future when the current administration decides it’s not too crazy about this whole delegated-powers principle. When that happens, the strings may come.

Unfortunately, there are any number of examples of federal block grants that have evolved into much more central roles for the federal government. States have long relied on the federal government to assist in infrastructure improvements, namely highway expansion. Because of that reliance, 18-year olds, despite often defending freedom abroad, participating in the electoral process, and serving on juries, may not legally enjoy a beer in any of the 50 states. In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, mandating that in exchange for the receipt of federal transportation funds, states were required to increase the drinking age from 18 to 21. States that refused to do so would risk losing 5 percent of their federal highway funding. In response to a challenge brought by South Dakota, the Supreme Court held in South Dakota v. Dole that conditional federal programs could not be so onerous as to pass “the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.” Despite a spirited dissent from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court found that the threat of losing 5 percent of federal highway funds did not cross the compulsion threshold.

One of the best features of voucher programs is that they are largely run without extensive federal intervention.

The education world has not been immune to the effect of federal funds with similarly coercive conditions. When No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002, it was hailed as a means by which standards could be increased nationwide. While that may or may not have been a result of NCLB over its 13-year history, what is indisputable is the impact of the many conditions that came attached to federal education funds. The University of Massachusetts’ Kathryn McDermott and Laura Jensen argued in 2005 in the Peabody Journal of Education that the law represented “the greatest extension to date of Federal authority over public school governance” and that by passing the law, Congress “used its conditional spending power to push states and localities into enacting particular kinds of testing and accountability policies.” They also discussed “the implications of NCLB for federalism and intergovernmental relationships in education governance.”

One of the best features of voucher programs is that they are largely run without extensive federal intervention. While public schools are beholden to any number of federal regulations through the threat of reduced aid, voucher schools have far greater freedom to offer their students a diverse curriculum that may not be completely in line with federal dictates. This makes the choice sector a far friendlier realm for innovation, in general, than traditional public schools. Academic research has shown the benefits of this freedom in higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and lower rates of involvement in criminal behavior. Increased federal regulations would likely serve as a wet blanket on these positive outcomes.

In considering President-elect Trump’s block-grant proposal, policymakers would do well not only to consider the lessons of past coercive grant arrangements similar to those outlined above, but also to take to heart state leaders’ request for more flexibility. Recently Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, in a letter to Trump, urged him to sign an executive order “directing all federal agencies to consult and coordinate federal activities with their state counterparts and to truly delegate oversight of functions and activities without mandates or strings that the federal government has a history of attaching to such delegation.” Walker’s suggestion would presumably apply to the Department of Education.

#related#These suggestions should not be viewed as opposition to Trump’s proposal for increased federal aid to voucher programs. Rather, they are a call for policymakers to do what they can to ensure that any block grants are designed in such a manner that they will be difficult for a less friendly future administration (or the current administration, were it to lose its way) to  stifle education innovation. For example, additional mandates could result in a loss of curriculum and religious autonomy or force accommodations for transgender students inconsistent with local community norms. Avoiding these strings will ensure that new federal aid is a long-term boon to the choice sector, rather than a genie that choice supporters may wish they hadn’t let out of the bottle.

— Will Flanders is the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty education research director and Jake Curtis is an associate counsel at the Institute’s Center for Competitive Federalism.

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