Education Law Prof Blog: The Trump Administration Misunderstands the Difference Between School Reform and School Improvement

With regard to education, the Trump administration isn’t so different from its predecessors. The administration promises to improve schools through innovative reform while ignoring the basic building blocks of education: teachers and funding. The specifics are new—an emphasis on charter schools and voucher expansion—but the formula of gambling with educational opportunity is not. President Bush bet on standardized testing and accountability. President Obama pushed the Common Core and statistical teacher evaluations. 

Each of these reforms damaged schools in its own unique way. The No Child Left Behind Act narrowed the curriculum, incentivized test manipulation and cheating, and demanded punitive sanctions for schools. By setting goals that very few schools could meet, NCLB quickly fueled the narrative of a failing public-education system. The overall result has been to undermine support for public education itself.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who served under President Obama, used states’ failure under NCLB as leverage to demand Common Core standards and strict teacher-evaluation systems. He assumed these measures could finally deliver on two of NCLB’s initial goals—raising academic standards and improving teacher quality—but the shift to these new measures brought chaos with little payoff for students. As soon as states began implementing the changes, teacher lawsuits, parental protests, and political resistance spread. States claimed that Duncan’s demands were a federal overreach. Teachers claimed that evaluation systems based primarily on student test scores could not reliably rate teachers or provide meaningful feedback on how to improve. Parents argued that the Common Core would dumb down academic content and require more testing. Rather than sort it out, Congress scrapped many of the models advanced under NCLB. In its place, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. The only animating theory of the act is that Congress must prohibit the federal government from demanding much of anything from states.

The Trump administration’s agenda to expand charters and vouchers threatens to be just as disruptive. School choice is no more a panacea to educational inequities than is standardized testing. While Secretary Besty DeVos argues that market forces and parental choice can regulate school enrollment better than the government, school choice could prove even more dangerous than past reforms if not accompanied by common-sense limits regarding the students who are eligible to leave their current, the schools to which they can transfer, and the cost the traditional public-school system must shoulder. The last few years offer numerous examples of how unregulated choice opens the door to segregationprofiteeringincompetence, and marginal educational opportunities.

Debating the merits of these federal reforms, however, distracts public attention from the simple things that research shows really matter for student outcomes: good teachers and school funding. Neither requires fancy reform. They require basic support for public schools. 

Forty years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court explained what ought to be obvious: Districts with higher property values can “provide a substantially wider range and higher quality of education services,” while those with lower values “have a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers, especially teachers with only one year of experience.” Last month, the Kansas Supreme Court put it more bluntly: “money makes a difference in public education.” 

Experience confirms these simple truths. Reviewing decades of data, a recent study found that a 20 percent increase in school funding, when maintained, results in low-income students completing nearly a year of additional education, wiping out roughly half of the achievement gap between low- and middle-income students. A few weeks ago, a separate study found that a 10 percent increase in funding correlates with a 5percent jump in graduation rates in high-poverty districts. With a 99 percent confidence level, a Kansas studyshowed that “a 1 percent increase in student performance was associated with a .83 percent increase in spending.”

School-funding trends, however, are going in the opposite direction. Between 2008 and 2012, annual cuts exceeding $1,000 per-pupil were routine—the equivalent of an assistant teacher aid in every classroom or the entire science and foreign-language departments combined. In North Carolina and Florida, funding fell from over $10,000 to $7,000 per-pupil in just a few years. Some cuts may have been necessary during the recession, but the recession cannot explain why, in real dollar terms, 31 states spend less on education now than they did before the recession. 

The immediate results were teacher layoffs, lower salaries, and larger class sizes. The lingering effect is a dried-up pipeline of new teachers. In California, the demand for qualified teachers was 40 percent higher than the supply in the 2016-2016 school year. The state certified 15,000 teachers, but needed 6,500 more than that. The shortage was even worse in Nevada. Las Vegas alone had 2,600 vacancies to fill, but state produced less than 1,000 new teachers. As is the case elsewherein the country, these shortages forced the states to put previously uncertified interns in the classroom on the promise that they would finish their coursework in their spare time. In other states, districts resorted to billboard advertisements just to get warm bodies in the classroom. 

These cuts and shortages hit low-income and minority students the hardest. Even before the recent cuts, poor and minority students were twice as likely as their peers to have an inexperienced or unqualified teacher. Now they are being asked to do more with less. In Illinois, schools serving predominantly poor student populations receive 23 percent less funding than other schools in the state. A 2015 Education Law Center analysis found that Nevada’s high-poverty school districts received only half the funding as others. 

Arizona combines all these problems in a way that may have just signed the death knell for its public schools. Arizona’s funding levels were already the third worst in the nation; its equity levels tied for seventh worst, and its fiscal effort second worst. Three weeks ago, the state passed legislation making every student in the state eligible for a voucher. Students can take 90 to 100 percent of the state money allotted for their local district and divert it to a voucher. With such a poorly funded public system, the legislation incentivizes wholesale abandonment of public education in some locations.

It does not have to be this way. Schools can hire and retain quality teachers if states maintain fair funding for schools. Classrooms can be positive environments if teachers get the support and training they need to respond to students’ needs. But every moment the Trump administration spends on school choice is a moment it ignores these core education needs and emboldens behavior like that in Arizona and elsewhere. 

To be fair, the Obama administration supported charter schools. But it never pushed for vouchers or suggested public schools were the enemy of quality education. For Trump, school choice is not a measure to nudge public schools to improve. School choice is an end in itself—one worth sacrificing traditional public schools for if necessary. Trump’s proposed budget doubles down on school choice, while doing nothing for traditional public schools. It cuts funding for after-school programs, teacher recruitment, and literacy assistance for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency. The budget then repurposes those funds toward school choice.

Trump’s rhetoric of education reform has found a receptive audience because America’s public schools are in so much need, not because his particular brand of reform has merit. If Congress ignores the distinction, Trump will make the biggest education gamble to date. The safer and far simpler option is to give low-income schools the additional resources they need to boost graduation rates and cut the achievement gap. This is the way to help every student succeed, leave no child behind, or achieve whatever other catchy phrase Congress might throw at schools. Anything short of that is just an empty promise that will soon enough, like past reforms, disappoint families.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...