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How Could Trump's Budget Use $1 Billion in Title I Aid to Boost School Choice?

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Along with the various cuts to the U.S. Department of Education's budget proposed by President Donald Trump, the other part of Trump's fiscal 2018 spending plan getting a lot of attention is the $1 billion the president wants to add to Title I in order to encourage open enrollment in public schools. There are a lot of questions about how that, along with many other parts of Trump's education budget blueprint, would work. Let's explore some of them. 

First, it's important to point out this increase isn't necessarily and strictly a $1 billion bump for Title I. The budget says it's an increase from the $14.9 billion that Title I grants technically get now. But ESSA gets rid of the Obama-era School Improvement Grants and instead shifts that money over to a portion of Title I money states can set aside for their own school improvement activities. That means that once Congress gets around to doing a regular fiscal year budget, Title I is already slated to rise to $15.4 billion.

So once (or if, for you pessimists out there) that happens, Trump's proposed Title I funding increase would only be roughly $500 million.

But beyond that, what could this $1 billion proposal mean? 

More Money, More Questions

The $1 billion increase for Title I, the pot of federal cash intended for disadvantaged children, is "dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables federal, state, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice," Trump's budget states.

The bulk of Title I money for districts is distributed using a complicated set of formulas. It isn't doled out competitively. So it doesn't appear that the department could use a Race to the Top-style approach to encourage this sort of public school choice. And even if it could, many—if not the vast majority—of Republicans could get heartburn at the mere thought of comparisons to Race to the Top. 

There's another possibility a few folks have raised: The Every Student Succeeds Act contains a three-year, weighted student-funding pilot designed to encourage a different distribution of resources. It's in Title I Part E (starting on page 147 of the law if you want to follow along). The pilot hasn't gotten off the ground yet. But Jason Botel, a top Trump education adviser, also singled out the program for praise recently. So could the pilot be used for this proposal to make at least a chunk of Title I money "portable" in some fashion? Here's what we wrote about it last year

Under the pilot, which would last for a maximum of three years, districts would be permitted to combine federal, state, and local funding streams with the purpose of better directing that money to low-income students and others with particular needs, including English-language learners. Among other requirements, the new formulas would have to ensure that each high-poverty school gets more per-pupil funding than it did in the previous academic year.

Some advocates at first advertised the new formula as a sort of school choice program, but the pilot formulas won't allow any sort of portability for funds or any sort of parental choice. However, some supporters of choice, such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have previously argued that such weighted formulas can help money more easily follow the students who are deemed to need it most.

A few observations:

  • You'll notice that the Trump budget explicitly says that this $1 billion in new money would be tailored for students to choose their public school. That possibility isn't specifically mentioned in the ESSA language describing the weighted-funding pilot. Under the pilot, the money is attached to students, but how that money flows is not ultimately at the discretion of parents or students themselves, said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.
  • ESSA's language for the pilot allows for additional flexibility with the Title I dollars districts already get. There might be a way for Congress to appropriate additional funds for the pilot somehow, but Nora Gordon, an associate professor at Georgetown who studies school finance, said, "I don't know how that is Title I."
  • More broadly, there's no "national activities" section of Title I that would allow the department to withhold a portion of Title I aid for school choice purposes. 
  • It may be possible for districts to run a public school choice program alongside this pilot. And there may be a way for the department to implement the pilot to encourage choice in some form. However, that's not the same as pumping $1 billion directly into this pilot to promote portability for Title I money to public schools. 
  • Increasing funding for high-poverty schools, which the pilot requires, doesn't necessarily square with making Title I money "portable" to public schools of families' choice. There are other requirements as well that may not fit that typical portability model.
  • Technically, only the districts that apply for the pilot (the law allows for up to 50) could use such a formula. Would each of them divvy up $1 billion somehow?

There's also the possibility that the Trump administration wants lawmakers to rewrite this section of ESSA in order to allow for this public school choice proposal, backed by $1 billion. But we haven't heard anything at all about that idea.

A Voucher Program

Also included in the budget is a more direct proposal: $250 million for a "new private school choice program." As with the Title I proposal discussed above, we don't have a ton of details yet on what this would look like.  

As we've touch on previously, the single biggest obstacle to federal vouchers right now could be Congress. Even though congressional Republicans are in charge on Capitol Hill and in general support vouchers and other choice programs, GOP lawmakers representing largely rural states don't like the concept of any national federal mandates for voucher programs. That's because many of their students wouldn't really have a host of private school options to choose from in sparsely populated areas. 

It's possible that states and even districts could "opt in" and choose to compete for or otherwise receive this $250 million. That would remove the mandate Republicans like Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska are concerned about. 

But some lawmakers may not be a fan of appropriating money for this voucher program at the same time that grants many of their home-state districts rely on are cut or eliminated. 

So how could this program work? Right now, there's no national voucher program authorized in federal law, much less funded. There's speculation that the administration may have this voucher program take over the Education Innovation and Research program (the successor to the Investing in Innovation, or i3 grants) and run it through EIR. That's because EIR is already authorized through ESSA, and it's a relatively flexible part of the law. But lawmakers may not like the idea of a research program they authorized turning into vouchers. 

Photo: President Donald Trump takes his seat as he arrives for a meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and parents and teachers at a White House meeting. Evan Vucci/AP


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