“Educational Choice” is a Slogan Slick Enough for Donald Trump

Rhetoric can’t hide a failure to address inequality

Donald Trump outlined his policy and philosophy for K-12 education in a speech at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA), a for-profit charter school in the largest city of battleground state of Ohio.

The Republican presidential nominee and founder of Trump University accused Democrats of trapping black and Hispanic youth in failing public schools and offered the postern door of school choice through a proposed block grant, voucher-like program in which per pupil expenditures would follow students to the school of their parents’ liking.

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“I want every single inner city child in America who is today trapped in a failing school to have the freedom, the civil right to attend the school of their choice,” Trump said in his Sept. 8 speech.

The philosophical basis for Trump’s policy should sound familiar. It seems to come out of the playbooks of both Republican and Democrat reformers who advocate for vouchers and/or charter schools. Charter and voucher advocates may distance themselves from the nuclear Trump and his policies, but they will have a hard time distancing themselves from his rhetoric, which reveals how gamey the word “choice” is.

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After 25 years of having charter schools, it’s clearer that “educational choice” is dangling bait for black and brown parents who are desperate for change. But its becoming even easier through the thin veil of choice rhetoric to see choice policies have found ways to primarily deconstruct the “monopoly” on public schools – not address structural inequalities that generate disparate educational outcomes.

Like many education reformers, Trump argues an estimated $620 billion spent on public funding has not translated to educational success, but for the Republican nominee it shows “obviously Common Core doesn’t work.” Notwithstanding the bad coupling of a three year-old Common Core program to decades of public education policy and not giving Common Core a reasonable amount of time to prove itself, Trump asserts parents’ power of the purse would drive improvement through competition if only they had the money. Parents who make the best possible choices for their children would naturally put failing schools out of business.

If that was only true of the school in which he gave his speech – CASSA received a “D” on its Performance Index and an “F” in value-added, a growth measure over a school year. Nevertheless to encourage choice, Trump’s first budget if elected would include an additional $20 billion that will be raised by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars” to create a block grant that would be dedicated to “the 11 million school-aged kids living in absolute poverty.” States would be given the option of allowing those dollars to follow the child.

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Families could then use their tuition dollars to attend any school of their choice including private, traditional, magnet or charter. But Trump forgot the tiny detail that schools often do the choosing – even among public schools – which obviously limits families’ choices. Voucher programs provide insight in this regard. The most selective privates in eligible cities across the country don’t participate in voucher programs.

Students are then left with mediocre options that give the illusion of choice like the school in which he gave his speech. Many private and faith-based schools would close without the public subsidy (welfare for the cynical). Again, research on voucher programs is showing that students in certain states are performing worse than if they attended a public school. Giving students options is not the same as giving families economic and social power, which really empowers parents the influence to enter systems of their wishes.

Most if not all black folk, who poll as supporting Trump at less than 1 percent, see Trump as a hustler, racist and bigot. Still, the choice lobby, which includes charter and voucher advocates, spews choice as fluently as Trump.

Black and brown parents are raring for change. Academic outcomes among black and brown students pale in comparison to their potentials. Black and brown suspension and expulsion rates show our appetite for punishing children. Students often learn in substandard buildings and are not afforded curricula that give them a chance to succeed in college.

Black folks’ outstretched desperation for quality schools and equity is longer than the history of public education itself. Polling done by choice advocates support this basic thirst for change, and they point to that research to make the case for reform. Just like Trump said, “What do you have to lose?

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But let’s be clear; parents may want choice, but they need the power to make the school in their neighborhood great. Black communities don’t need used car salespeople; they need great transportation and schools. Neither children nor schools should be comparable to jean shopping. An aside – descendants of the enslaved know too well that people are not commodities. Still black folks are sold choice as a form of justice.

When you hear someone use the term “choice” like Trump, don’t buy what they’re selling.

Trump showed us the difference between courting and pimping the black community – the use of the term choice.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).