Federalizing School Choice Could Be Trump’s Common Core

Federalizing School Choice Could Be Trump’s Common Core

The Trump administration now wants to take a successful conservative idea—school choice—and make it susceptible to getting strangled in federal red tape.
Inez Feltscher Stepman
By

In coordination with a bill to be sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has announced the administration’s support for a federal school choice tax credit, touting it as proof of President Trump’s commitment to opportunities for students.

While school choice is critical and often undervalued, a federal school choice program reaches beyond the constitutional mandate of the federal government, and presents a real danger to private education in the future. If it passes, this latest example of federal overreach could be the Trump administration’s equivalent to the Common Core debacle, and worse, could taint one of the most important reforms advanced by conservatives in the states.

The word “education” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, but federal involvement with teaching and learning began in earnest in the 1960s, with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Seventy years later, poverty has not been vanquished and math and reading scores are largely flat, but the federal Department of Education does spend $80 billion a year and pays an average six-figure salary to its staff.

In the meantime, the department’s power has been wielded to encourage and enforce bipartisan, but unpopular, top-down education reform fads like No Child Left Behind and Common Core. If Thursday’s announcement is any indication, the Trump administration now wants to take a successful, conservative idea—school choice—and make it susceptible to getting strangled in federal red tape.

Education Freedom Is Key

U.S. education absolutely deserves attention from conservative reformers. Our public schools have failed to produce students competent in basic reading, mathematics, and civic knowledge. Instead, thanks to schools of education that churn out teachers steeped in left-wing ideology and textbooks that unfairly focus on America’s worst moments to the detriment of her triumphs, half of my generation chooses socialism over capitalism and a third think George W. Bush murdered more people than Joseph Stalin did.

It’s become increasingly clear that the left will not let the 10 percent of students who are in non-public schooling opt out in peace. There will be no Benedict Option retreat for conservatives into the private sector. Second Lady Karen Pence came under attack for teaching art in a private school that has the temerity to uphold Christian teachings on sexuality. The media lost their minds when President Trump supported some states’ biblical literacy standards on Twitter, even though some measure of biblical literacy is required to understand a large chunk of the Western canon.

Meanwhile, the progressive agenda in public schools suffers from no similar media backlash. Multiple-choice questions requiring students to demean the president raised barely a peep, and ongoing parent concern about trans policies in schools, including locker rooms and bathrooms, has been largely ignored.

These culture war hot spots split Americans, often down the middle, but our one-size-fits-all public system doesn’t reflect our diverse reality. Families should have the right to determine what their children learn, and that means empowering parents with educational choice. For too long, conservatives have ignored that the left’s “long march through [our] institutions” has overwhelmed the U.S. K-12 system.

Handing the Left a New Weapon

It is exactly because school choice is so important that we should be loathe to expose it to the heavy hands of federal regulators. Even if Republicans get a perfectly clean version of the tax credit through Congress—a tall order given the composition of the House—the door would be open for future Democratic administrations to extend a regulatory toehold into every private school that accepted students on scholarship.

Is anyone naïve enough to believe that a Kamala Harris presidential administration would not apply civil rights statutes newly interpreted to encompass sexual orientation and trans identity—an idea already well underway during the Obama administration—to these education funds because the language of the bill doesn’t support that regulation? Pesky things like the explicit text of the laws and standing regulatory interpretation didn’t stop Obama from creating legally untethered regulations DeVos has spent her entire tenure so far trying to talk back. It wouldn’t stop an Obama-esque successor either.

It is exactly to avoid these kinds of national battles that the Founders rightfully left education in the hands of the states, closer to parents and citizens. The notion of constitutional authority might be quaint in Washington, but the wisdom of federalism endures despite the “sophisticated” opinions of the Swamp.

If President Trump wants to promote school choice—and he is absolutely to be commended for that impulse—he should harness his amazing media power to call for educational freedom in the states most receptive to his message. In West Virginia, Trump country, conservative legislators just fought and lost a battle for education savings accounts. In Texas, which went for President Trump by nine points, it’s Republican legislators who continually thwart education choice.

In Nebraska, another state that went for the president by a landslide in 2016, families still have no access to diverse education options that reflect their values. A public relations push from Trump and his administration that included the necessity of school choice as a counterweight to the progressive takeover of public schools would be welcome, and likely extremely effective in getting these proposals over the finish line.

President Trump’s instinct that school choice is critical to our future is dead on. Instead of pouring that energy into federal overreach with potentially dangerous unintended consequences, the president should use the bully pulpit to bolster the movement for education freedom where it has been most successful to date: in the states.

Inez Feltscher Stepman is a senior contributor at The Federalist. She is also a senior policy analyst at Independent Women's Forum and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a women's newsletter. Find her on Twitter @inezfeltscher.

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