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What Would It Mean to 'Pass School Choice,' as Trump Wants?

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In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump urged lawmakers to "pass school choice for America's children." That's a pretty vague statement—which means that if Congress even sneezes in the direction of choice, Trump and his team may be able to claim victory on it.

But lawmakers have already rejected Trump's pitches for a new $1 billion competitive grant that would pay for vouchers and more. And a behind-the-scenes effort to create a federal tax credit scholarship never got off the ground, thanks in part to opposition from conservatives who worried it amounted to a federal power grab.

So what other policies could Trump realistically paint as a win for school choice? Here are three possibilities:

Renewing, and maybe even expanding the District of Columbia voucher program: The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship actually got a bipartisan start back in 2004. It is currently serving 1,100 children. The academic results so far have been mixed. One study showed that students who receive vouchers through the program don't perform as well in math as their peers. But families who were offered or using vouchers were much more likely to rate their school as "very" safe.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently called on Congress to renew and grow the program. It's hard to say how that ask will go down in a Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives where many members are skeptical of school choice. On the plus side for the program? It has strong support from the Heritage Foundation, which is skeptical of a big federal role in expanding choice.

Creating Education Savings Accounts for military families and/or Native American students:

Last year, DeVos said she wanted to see military-connected families get access to education savings accounts, which could help cover the cost of private school, public school, tutoring, and more. But so far, the proposal hasn't really gone anywhere.

The problem? Well, first off, no one can agree on how to pay for it. The conservative Heritage Foundation has been pushing a plan that would use $1.3 billion in impact aid, which helps school districts make up for a federal presence, like a military base or Native American reservation. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill—and the Trump administration—don't think it's a great idea to divert money school districts depend on.

DeVos had not publicly endorsed any military school bill. But she had said that a proposal from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., to use some defense dollars to create a pilot school choice program on military bases was worth a look. That may not go over well with conservatives who don't want to see money diverted to create a new program.

What's more, the military and Native American communities that the proposal is designed to help are cautious about the prospect of ESAs. Advocates for Native American students think such a program could end up hurting the schools that serve most of the students in their communities. And advocates for military families worry the new choice opportunities wouldn't reach all students. 

Expanding the Charter School Grant program

Charter schools are a form of choice that actually has some bipartisan backing, although charters aren't feeling as much love from Democrats in some places as they used to. The federal charter school program's budget has ballooned already in recent years, from about $250 million in fiscal year 2015 to $440 million this year. Those increases started on President Barack Obama's watch. But the Trump administration has been seeking big increases and asked for $500 million in its most recent budget, which would have been $100 million increase. Lawmakers didn't go that far, but gave the program a substantial, $40 million hike. It will be interesting to see if the program's fortunes continue to rise under a Democratically controlled House.

Photo: President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. --Carolyn Kaster/AP

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