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Trump budget promotes school choice while cutting student loan programs

May 23, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
President Trump's budget proposes roughly $9 billion in cuts to various federal education programs, a reduction of roughly 13 percent, including changes to student loan programs. Some of that money would be rerouted to advance the idea of school choice. William Brangham discusses what this may mean for schools and students with NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: As we discussed before, the Trump administration’s budget proposes major cuts to a number of federal agencies and initiatives.

We wanted to take a deeper look at the proposed cuts with regards to education and a push for expanding school choice with some of those dollars.

William Brangham has that story, which is part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The administration’s budget proposes roughly $9 billion in cuts to various federal education programs. That’s about a 13 percent reduction. A billion from those cuts would be rerouted to advance school choice, where parents can take public school funds and spend it on any school they choose.

Secretary of Education of Betsy DeVos praised that idea in a speech yesterday.

BETSY DEVOS, U.S. Education Secretary: We must offer the widest number of quality options to every family and every child. Empowering parents with choices is how to give students second, third or fourth chances before it’s too late.

Even the most expensive, state-of-the-art, high-performing school will not be the perfect fit for every single child. Parents know or they can figure out what learning environment is best for their child.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For more on what this all means for students nationwide, I’m joined now by Anya Kamenetz. She’s an education reporter for NPR and the author of several books on the future of education.

Anya, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

Let’s talk about — before we get to the broader issue of the budget, let’s talk about school choice. This has obviously been a huge issue for Secretary DeVos, one that she has championed for many, many years.

Remind us what school choice means and what this budget does with regard to school choice.

ANYA KAMENETZ, NPR: So, school choice is a catch-all term. It can mean sending students to charter schools, which are alternative public schools, or using vouchers to send them to private schools, or even using vouchers for homeschooling or online and virtual schools.

And all of those are embraced by Secretary DeVos. The budget proposal that we’re seeing promotes choice in a lot of different ways. So there’s more money in it for states to expand charter programs. There is money for states that want to give poor students open enrollment and the chances to leave their low-performing schools for other schools within the district, as well as money for voucher programs, which, again, promote private schools.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And school choice obviously is a very controversial topic. Critics of it think of it as a way of draining money away from public schools and putting them into private or religious schools.

What does the data tell us on how good these schools are? What does school choice do for kids?

ANYA KAMENETZ: Well, as you mentioned, this is a really contentious issue, and there is kind of a moving target. There’s a lot of different arguments for, against and around school choice.

But, recently, in looking at the research, I think one thing that we can say is that there do seem to be positive competition effects. In other words, public schools perk up when there’s a new sheriff in town.

On the other hand, when you talk about students, especially poor students, leaving their schools and going out to schools of choice, charter schools, private schools, there is controversy there. In some cases, they may do a little bit better. In other cases, in fact, they do worse.

And some of the most recent studies on voucher programs in particular in Louisiana, in Ohio and in Washington, D.C., have shown declines in performance when students leave for private schools. And that’s really notable, because, when you look at education research, a lot of times, there’s no effect, sometimes, there’s positive effects, but to find a negative effect is a little bit unusual.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, let’s go back to this larger issue of the budget itself, $9 billion in cuts.

A lot of these will fall on higher education in particular. Can you tell us about those cuts?

ANYA KAMENETZ: Absolutely.

So, the biggest item here is an end to subsidized student loans. Right now, there’s two student loan programs for subsidized loans. If you qualify, for undergraduates, the government picks up your interest while you’re in school. And that would be going away under this plan.

The second really significant cut is in the loan repayment program called public service loan forgiveness. And that is for teachers, doctors, firefighters, police officers, people engaged in nonprofits and government work. They were supposed to have their loans forgiven after 10 years of service. And this program’s only 10 years old. So if you’re following along, the repayment was supposed to start this October.

And all — upwards of half-a-million people are enrolled in this program. If it goes away, it would be a big panic for a lot of people.

On top of that, there’s cuts to a number of different programs. There’s flat funding for Pell. I think a small program that might be going away would be child care for college students. And that’s significant for working students who we see at many of our community colleges, for example.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, this is just the president’s proposal, and Congress still has to weigh in on this. How likely do you think it is that this budget will remain intact going through Congress?

ANYA KAMENETZ: I mean, I’m sure you have got a lot of people giving this a negative handicap.

On the K-12 side, there’s broad bipartisan support for a lot of these proposals that are under the gun here in. In higher ed, some of these cuts could be made with budget reconciliation without any Democratic votes, so that may be a little bit of a brighter future for those proposals, if indeed we do see any legislation passing through in the next few months.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Anya Kamenetz of National Public Radio, thank you.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Thank you.

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