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Trump and city schools: spreading charters and vouchers

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The worrisome news from Trump Tower continues. Trump’s education-secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, is a strong supporter of charter schools and school vouchers.

No surprise, I guess. Trump himself has talked about using $20 billion in existing federal education funds for vouchers. His pick for vice president, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, greatly expanded that state’s publicly funded voucher program. And since Republicans have praised vouchers and charter schools for years, Congress isn’t likely to oppose a Trump move.

New York controls the number of charter schools in the state, so Trump won’t be ordering an expansion, but charter schools are already having an impact here.

Twelve charter schools are currently operating in Rochester, and two more are in Greece but serve city students. This year, those schools have enrolled 5277 students who might otherwise go to a district school. That’s nearly 20 percent of the approximately 27,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students remaining in district schools. Another charter school is scheduled to open next fall, and a proposal for one more is under review.

On average, enrollment in the Rochester charters has gone up by 20 percent a year for the past several years, School Board President Van White says. Last year that increase was 25 percent.

Vouchers could add to the competition, although how serious that threat is may depend on how much vouchers are worth. An analysis by Vox predicted that vouchers financed by diverting current federal grants would give each impoverished student $580. That won’t go far here.

The tuition at Harley, for example, ranges from $12,300 to $25,400, according to the school’s information on Private School Review. Tuition at local schools with religious affiliation tends to be less – $5500 and up in the lower grades, more for senior high. For many families, of course, that’s still substantial. And while those schools do offer needs-based financial aid, they can’t fully cover all children who want to enter.

Whether vouchers would make private schools affordable for the poorest families is questionable, but they would undoubtedly help middle-income families. And every child who leaves a Rochester school for one of the district’s competitors is a financial problem. The district loses state aid for that child. While that loss means the district has fewer students to educate, the district can’t cut its costs proportionately. If three students from a single class leave and go to a charter school, for instance, the district can’t lay off a teacher to offset the loss; there’ll still be 20 or so other students in that class.

In addition, the Rochester district has to pay for charter students’ transportation, school lunches, textbooks, and some special services (individual aides for students with disabilities, for instance). The state reimburses the district for some of that expense, but not all of it.

Also serious, White notes, is the loss of students and families who are often among the most engaged with education. These are families who are concerned enough about their children’s schooling that they seek options.

And vouchers may pose an additional threat – one that would be particularly serious for urban districts. According to several media reports, much of the $20 billion Trump wants for vouchers would probably come from Title I funds – money targeted to schools with large numbers of poor children. If vouchers become federal policy, that critical help could disappear.

Interest in competition for public schools has been growing, and that’s likely to intensify now. There’s still no proof that charter schools on the whole do better than public schools. Some do, some don’t. One thing is clear, though: as the competition continues, traditional public schools will be left with the very poorest children, and with the children with the greatest educational challenges: more children with serious disabilities, more who don’t speak English, more from families who are less engaged in their children’s education and are least able to help them.

That’s a terrible thing to do to those children. And it sure won’t make America greater.

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