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Should Teachers Get Vouchers for Professional Learning? Trump Thinks So

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Once again, President Donald Trump's budget proposal has eliminated the $2.1 billion Title II grant program that funds class-size reductions and teacher and principal professional development. But this time, he's also proposing adding "vouchers" for PD. 

The proposed fiscal 2020 budget, released Monday, would cut the Education Department's spending by $7.1 billion, down to $64 billion, starting in October by eliminating 29 programs. The budget says that the Title II program is "largely duplicative," and other formula grant funds, including Title I and Title III, could be used for professional development. 

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating Title II twice before. Both times, that proposal has been rebuffed by a Republican-controlled Congress. And it will likely face similar pushback under this Congress, especially with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. In fact, experts say that much of his budget proposal is likely to go unrealized.

This time, however, Trump's budget proposes a different approach to teacher professional development. The administration has requested $300 million for the Education Innovation and Research program—an increase of $170 million. Of that, $200 million would go toward vouchers, or stipends, that would let teachers select training programs tailored to their unique needs.

"I've spoken with hundreds of teachers as I've traveled across the country and hosted teacher roundtables at the department, and I heard far too often how limited most teachers are in their own professional development," Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "They have little to no say in the courses they take. They have very little freedom to explore subject areas that interest them."

The voucher program, she said, would provide "much-needed freedom and flexibility for teachers" while also respecting them as professionals.

Still, education advocates remain concerned about the elimination of the Title II program—and skeptical about whether the voucher program would make up for that loss. 

"I think it's great that they're prioritizing the teaching profession," said Jane West, an education consultant. "However, I think their strategy is questionable. To eliminate the $2 billion account that is targeted to support and further develop teachers seems to send a double message. Yes, they added $170 million, but they took away a whole lot more than that." 

Already, she said, the $2 billion in Title II grants was stretched thin. A $200 million "experiment" is not a substitute for the investment that Title II makes in setting up professional-development structures, West said. 

Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of Learning Forward, a group that works to improve professional learning in schools, put it this way: "I hope most teachers respond, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'" 

"The voucher program is going back to the old catalog-shopping days of professional development," she said. "Teachers are not asking for a PD voucher program. They're asking for time for collaborative learning and problem-solving with their colleagues." 

A study last year from the RAND Corporation found that teachers in both low- and high-poverty schools said they didn't have enough time to collaborate with their peers. Hirsh pointed to the new definition of high-quality professional development under the Every Student Succeeds Act: It's sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. Individualized professional development, she said, might not meet those guidelines.

It's unclear how exactly the PD voucher program would work. It would be housed under the Education Innovation and Research program, which is a discretionary/competitive grants program—so teachers might have to apply for the stipend. 

Otherwise, Hirsh estimated that if each teacher were to receive a PD voucher, that would be $62 per teacher. If it's a competitive grant process, she said she worries that the money would go to teachers in districts that are well-positioned to apply—and teachers working in poor rural and urban districts would be inadvertently shut out of the process. (All states currently receive Title II funds through a formula.)

It's also unclear what the guidelines would be for receiving a voucher. Desmond Blackburn, the CEO of the New Teacher Center, said he supports educator choice, but raised concerns about having a voucher program without the structures set in place through the broader Title II funding. 

As a professional, "there are times when I lack complete certainty regarding what I don't know, and there are times when I'm going to need the systems around me to help decide where my current deficits are and what experiences are needed for my growth," he said, adding that having both Title II funding and a PD voucher program would be great. 

Concerns Over Title II

Title II has long had its detractors. The Obama administration questioned the effectiveness of the grant program, too, and decreased the program's budget from nearly $3 billion to about $2.3 billion. In its first budget proposal, the Trump administration argued that the Title II grant money is spread too thinly to have meaningful impact on student outcomes and that there is limited evidence that PD has led to increases in student achievement.

Still, Blackburn said the New Teacher Center works with 400 school districts across the country to support and develop teachers, and those districts largely use Title II funds for the work. Giving teachers ongoing, regular professional development has been proven to result in academic gains for students, he said.

Teachers have been advocating against the elimination of Title II ever since it was brought up in Trump's first budget proposal. Evan Stone, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Educators for Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher leadership, said in a statement that it has been "incredibly frustrating" to see Title II and other programs on the chopping block year after year.

"Fearing this repeat plan, E4E teachers traveled from around the country to our Capitol and met with Secretary DeVos to defend these investments," he said. "Ignoring their expertise sends a message that educators don't matter."

The proposed budget would also invest $200 million in Teacher and School Leader Incentive Grants, an existing program to increase teacher effectiveness through performance-based compensation. Trump's budget proposal states the grants would focus on high-quality mentoring or residencies for new teachers, as well as increased pay for effective teachers, particularly those in high-needs fields and subjects. 

Image: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a 2017 meeting with parents and teachers at the White House. —Evan Vucci/AP

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