In September, Donald Trump stood in front of a Cleveland, Ohio charter school and spoke about the troubled schools in the American “inner city”—a term the president-elect famously uses as a catch-all for poor and/or black neighborhoods. The promise Trump made then—which he’s reiterated in his plan for his first 100 days as president, and reinforced with his pick for education secretary—is to greatly expand school choice. The idea is that if a neighborhood school is failing, poor kids should be able to use federal and state funds to attend whichever school they want.
But evidence of the flaw in Trump’s plan was right in front of him. The charter school he was speaking at—the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy—is not doing well. The state of Ohio gives the school a grade of D for its students’ test performance.
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School choice is not a new concept. For decades, states have been trying to encourage competition among different school models. That has led to an explosion in the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate outside of the control of local school districts. The trouble is, researchers have found that these schools have mixed effects. In some cases charters improve test scores, while in others students do significantly worse than they would in neighborhood schools. Some districts have also tried giving students vouchers to go to private schools—which Trump has also called for—and have had similarly mixed results.
Many public school advocates argue that even the best charter schools can cause problems, because they drain money from other schools. That raises a big question about Trump’s plan, which would redirect $20 billion in federal funds to let students choose different schools. If that comes from the Department of Education budget, as some analysts expect, it would likely come from the two big buckets of federal money that go to K-12 schools now: $15.5 billion in Title 1 funds for schools with low-income populations and $12 billion for special education. Using that money for vouchers could mean decimating before- and after-school programs, tutoring in reading and math, and other supports for students facing the most serious academic challenges. The plan would also encourage states to dig money out of their own education spending for school choice.
Though his plan is misguided, the education crisis Trump points to is real—and really serious. There’s a huge and growing gap between the academic achievement levels of rich and poor kids. Today, students from wealthy families outscore their low-income counterparts by nearly 400 points on the SATs and are far more likely to graduate from high school.
One of the most successful ways to help low-income kids do better is to reduce income segregation, which has grown by 40% since 1990. That has a serious impact: One eye-popping study found that students from lower-income, less-educated families who attend school with wealthier peers are 68% more likely to attend a four-year college than those who go to an income-segregated school with peers from similar backgrounds.
The study’s author, Gregory Palardy of the University of California at Riverside, said segregation is the single biggest way that U.S. schools shortchange low-income students. Schools serving poor children tend to get less funding, hire less-skilled teachers, and offer fewer advanced courses than their counterparts in wealthier areas. And, Palardy said, poor kids simply have a harder time succeeding when their peers are all facing similar disadvantages. He said lower-income kids are far more likely to succeed if they go to school with more affluent peers who know a lot about college and expect, as a matter of course, that they’ll continue their education beyond high school.
“They rub off on you and your view of the world,” he said.
One of the arguments behind school choice is that it would reduce segregation by letting parents send their kids to schools that are more diverse than their neighborhoods. But studies have found that the proliferation of charter schools has led to greater economic—as well as racial—segregation. There are essentially two sets of charter schools. One enrolls predominantly privileged white students—often pulling them from more diverse neighborhood schools—while another serves mainly poor black and Latino communities.
The importance of integration hasn’t gone unnoticed in education policy circles. Across the country, some school districts are working to reduce economic segregation, and earlier this year President Obama proposed a $120 million grant program to support these efforts. But all these plans depend on higher-income parents’ voluntarily participation, which isn’t always easy to achieve.
Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, executive director of the national organization Parents for Public Schools (PPS), said that richer, white parents may want to keep their children out of poorer, more heavily minority schools because they mistakenly worry that these schools won’t be good for their kids. But, she said, it’s often possible to convince them that a more diverse school has advantages. That’s part of PPS’s mission.
“The source of our beginning, really, is in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’90s,” Cushinberry said. “It was around this notion of white flight. We’re still dealing with similar issues as we did in 1991.”
Today, PPS supports parent activists in school systems from the Deep South to San Francisco, where rapid gentrification is raising new questions about school segregation. In addition to encouraging school integration, the organization works to get parents involved in improving the schools.
One recent, hopeful story comes from Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. Two low-income, mostly African-American high schools were closed, and the students moved to the more affluent Starkville High. Fearing that wealthier white families would pull their kids from the school, members of PPS Starkville worked with the state legislature, Mississippi State University, and other local groups to help smooth the transition. They found ways to get new funding for computers, books, buses and equipment, and to open new programs—including a pre-K. In the end there was no white flight. A number of white students actually left private schools for the new, more integrated district.
As far as Trump’s plan to increase school choice goes, Cushinberry said there just aren’t enough details available yet for her to comment. But, she said, in the wake of the election, she’s been thinking about how Americans can work together across social divisions.
“Certainly one way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools,” she said.