Trump, GOP Push School-Choice Funds in COVID Aid Bill

Trump, GOP Push School-Choice Funds in COVID Aid Bill
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Trump, GOP Push School-Choice Funds in COVID Aid Bill
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
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Restaurants, churches, doctors, meat-processing plants, musicians – even casinos -- have all been forced to get creative in adapting to the coronavirus threat, with varying degrees of success. But the one-size-fits-all solution most schools have provided – online learning – has left the vast majority of parents and students disappointed and frustrated by the experience.

Education in the time of the COVID-19 couldn’t get more emotional or personal with parents forced to endure a roller coaster school schedule this year. Schools shuttered in the spring, then some re-opened in the early summer – only to face fall closures following some governors’ orders. All of this has played havoc with family schedules, work commitments and budgets – not to mention derailing students’ learning trajectory along with the social interaction many crave and pediatric experts say they need.

Democrats, including Joe Biden, have offered few alternatives, especially with coronavirus cases recently spiking in many states. They have stood in solidarity with teacher unions in preventing schools from opening in the fall, calling that strategy the only sure-fire way to prevent the spread of virus among children, who could then bring it home to their parents and grandparents.

Not surprisingly, President Trump and many Republicans see things differently. While Trump has threatened to cut federal funding for school districts that remain closed this fall, any executive action to do so would likely get snarled in court for months, with little impact on students’ ability to resume in-person education.

Late last week, however, Trump started getting creative. Drawing on his history of supporting school-choice initiatives, he announced an ambitious new effort to give parents billions in federal funds – as much as $10,000 per child -- and allow them to pick the emergency-education method that would best fit their child’s and families’ needs.

“If the schools do not reopen, the funding should go to parents to send their children to [the] public, private, charter, religious or home school of their choice,” Trump told reporters Thursday during a press briefing. “The key word being ‘choice.’ If the school is closed, the money should follow the student so the parents and families are in control of their own decisions.”

In its push to reopen schools, the administration for weeks has focused on the dark side of keeping children sheltered in their houses. Citing more than just the loss of learning opportunities, the American Academy of Pediatrics has argued that social isolation has detrimental effects, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits, as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Trump would like to provide $105 billion to help schools reopen, with most going toward meeting CDC guidelines for social distancing. Ten percent of that money would be set aside for parents to pay for private school, charter school or home-schooling options, including hiring a teacher for their children or other children in their neighborhood.

Some teacher unions admit that distance learning is negatively impacting the most vulnerable students, including minorities in low-income areas and those with learning disabilities. Still, most adamantly oppose opening of schools.  The president’s broadly outlined emergency school choice plan drew a sharp rebuke from the American Federation of Teachers, which accused Trump of “sowing seeds of chaos and confusion so he can fulfill his and [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos’ dream of privatizing and voucherizing public education.”

The National Education Association, the largest union in the country, meanwhile, accused Trump of working to “steal scarce money from public schools when they need it the most.”

A senior administration official countered by calling that argument “the height of dishonesty.”

Out of the $105 billion the administration is requesting in the next emergency coronavirus spending bill, $70 billion would be dedicated to supporting K-12 with approximately $35 billion of that sum reserved for schools that reopen. That $70 billion is just emergency relief money alone – and comes in addition to the Department of Education’s annual budget of $70 billion, the official told RealClearPolitics.

Opponents’ rapid-fire condemnation of the idea, the official argued, is because the plan gives parents more flexibility and resources than they’ve ever had in making education decisions for their children.

“If the unions are scared of something, it’s that parents will get a taste of education choice and never want to go back,” the official said, adding that the extra $105 billion the administration wants to provide in education funds would be the biggest one-time federal investment in education in the country’s history.

“It’s telling that unions are so unconvinced that families will be happy with the product they’re providing,” the official added.

The fact that the policy could directly impact millions of frustrated families in a positive way during the back-to-school season, just weeks before the November elections, also has Democrats on defense, those pushing the emergency choice program argue.

Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that 5.6 million parents will be unable to go back to work if schools don’t reopen in the fall.

So far, the administration is backing legislation introduced last week by GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott. Along with 10% of the allocated $105 billion covering families’ private school/charter school/home-school costs, the bill would also create permanent tax credits of up to $5 billion annually for state-approved scholarship-granting organizations.

"Many schools are choosing not to reopen, and many schools are failing to provide high-quality distance learning. The students who will suffer from this experience the most are the children from lower-income families," Alexander said in a statement announcing the School Choice Now Act. "This bill will give families more options for their children's education at a time that school is more important than ever."

Scott said the legislation would help "ensure that all children have access to the necessary resources and opportunities — education included — to live a successful life."

DeVos last week praised the bill on Twitter and pressed lawmakers to include it in the new aid bill. An administration official said the measure abides by the conservative federalism principle by leaving the education choice funds up to the states to run and administer.

With unions on high alert over the push, House Democrats will likely block it. If they do, the Trump campaign will undoubtedly remind voters repeatedly that Biden and Democrats are denying families and children nearly $10,000 in in tax credits to help their children fill education gaps after the coronavirus has upended the school plans for millions of students.

At a time when Democrats are asking Republicans to go along with plans for more COVID relief for student loan debt and a broader push to cancel student loan debt entirely, opposing thousands of dollars going to parents could have a significant political cost if the Trump campaign and Republicans can push the message out effectively.

Ken Farnaso, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary, told RCP that the push to let parents determine their own education needs after the pandemic derailed their original choices shows that “President Trump puts Americans students’ well-being first and is working tirelessly to ensure that parents have every opportunity to send their kids back to school safely.”

Outside conservative groups backing similar emergency school choice proposals say their polling shows that the program plays well in the suburbs where Trump needs to capture the same number of voters as he did in 2016, or do better.

“We’ve done some testing in battleground states and it’s a very strong positive for the president and any other Republicans senators that champion it,” the Club for Growth’s David McIntosh said in an interview. Internal Club for Growth polling show the proposal is immensely popular with Trump’s Republican base, with positive reactions outweighing negatives ones by a 53-percentage-point margin. It also resonates with swing voters who view the program as positive by 10 points. Those surveyed who identified as “parents” approved of it by a 23-point net positive margin. 

McIntosh and other conservatives want the administration to go much further and give the money directly to parents, not rely on states and governors, especially those in blue states who would likely work with teacher unions to severely restrict how parents can spend the education funds.  Instead, they want these “parental choice scholarships” to be available to all students who are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, regardless of their parents’ incomes. 

McIntosh said he’s talked to President Trump, along with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow, all of whom have given their more expansive proposal a warm reception.

He expressed deep concern over the provisions in the Alexander-Scott bill that would allow governors to approve or veto how parents spend the money. “The federalism argument is a smoke screen they hide behind when they don’t want to do something bold,” he told RCP in an interview.

If the administration only pushes for “what’s in the Alexander bill, they will be letting down President Trump and vulnerable Republicans,” he argued. “That’s just a watered down version. What they need to do is to be bold and put Republican free-market competition principles on the table and let parents decide what works best for them.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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