Trump’s School Choice Plan Could Impact Catholic Schools

Catholic-SchoolIt’s no secret that Catholic schools have seen a continual decline in enrollment since the 1960s, and the threats to Catholic education perpetuated by the Obama administration certainly haven’t helped schools thrive. Trying to stave the flow of student attrition, Catholic schools are implementing new business and financing models, collapsing and consolidating school systems, and rebranding in order to resist a complete shuttering of operations.

But with the incoming Trump administration’s campaign promises to strengthen and expand school choice programs, Catholic schools could see welcome growth in their enrollment numbers, or at least stall the decline. Finding a way to do this that does not open the door to more government intrusion and violations of religious freedom, however, is essential and extremely difficult.

An elaborate and detailed plan for education has yet to be revealed, but Trump’s vision is outlined on his campaign and presidential transition websites. School choice is a major component of Trump’s plan, but so is the carrot and stick approach from the previous administration. States that already prioritize private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws will have preferred status for receiving federal grants. Trump is hoping to spend $20 billion of federal funds on school choice programs. In essence, if states want extra cash from the federal government, they’ll need to implement one of these programs.

The Trump Plan

The goal is to cover all 11 million school-aged children in the country who live at or below the poverty level with the ability to attend a school of their choice. A noble cause. If the states collectively contribute $110 billion on top of the $20 billion allocated by the federal government, all 11 million children living at or below poverty level could receive $12,000 to attend a school of their choice — private, public or charter.

As private schools that commonly include students living in poverty, Catholic schools might once again experience an upswing in student population, especially since the funding follows the student and is not limited to public or charter schools.

This, in essence, creates a national voucher or “scholarship,” according to Trump, for children in states that choose to participate. By tying the funds to the student, we can expect to see schools catering to families with an increase in competition among all educational institutions — including public schools. States will need to develop their own formulas, but Trump is emphatic that the money follows the child, perhaps to stem court challenges that the government would be directly funding religious institutions.

The good thing about this plan is that it should reduce the Catholic school closings often experienced when a new charter opens in its vicinity. Take the examples of Michigan and New York. From 2000 to 2012, the state of New York saw a one-to-one correspondence of Catholic school closures with the opening of each new charter school — 200 in all. Research regarding the unintended consequences of charter schools in the state of Michigan found that Catholic schools lost one student for every three gained by the charter schools.

Financially-strapped parents who have a choice between paying tuition and sending children to a free charter school tend to choose the latter. And repercussions can be expected at tuition-funded schools for each new charter school that opens. With funds being eligible for qualified students to attend both charter and private schools, all schools are pushed to excel in order to attract new students.

In February, Trump tweeted, “We have to fix our broken education system! #StopCommonCore.” And just two months ago he said we need to change the government-run education monopoly. Breaking up the education monopoly through school choice advocacy and portability of funds might create a boon for private independent Catholic schools as well, many of which are operating on the goodwill of philanthropists and the sacrifices of parents and underpaid teachers and administrators. As private schools, these institutions, too, should expect to see more families shopping for the right educational environment.

Concerns Remain

A number of questions still need to be answered, however, about who will really control the tuition payments and what, if any, government strings will be attached. If this federal and state money is following students to Catholic schools, it is imperative that the religious freedom of these schools be respected and absolutely guaranteed. There are already far too many legal assaults on Catholic schools challenging policies that promote faithfulness to Church teaching, which some inaccurately charge are unjust and discriminatory.

Diocesan and school financial aid guidelines may need to be adjusted under this new funding regime as well, taking into special consideration children who live on the fringe of the poverty level. Middle-class families may not benefit at all from the Trump policies, even though they struggle to bear the high expenses of private education while also paying for public schools. The Trump plan is certain to bring about waves of diversity in our schools, which overall is a good thing but could present challenges for which many schools are unprepared. Catholic schools deal effectively with socioeconomic disparity, as this has always been a part of our culture, but are we ready to handle an imminent tsunami of diversity?

The presidential transition website states that the administration “will advance policies to support learning-and-earning opportunities at the state and local levels,” yet it gives no specific details other than to emphasize that it is at these levels “where the heart and soul of American education takes place.” While educational policy and decision making, by constitutional law, take place at the state level, the “learning and earning” phase rings of “college and career” in the mode of Common Core. What this actually means still needs to be made clear.

Empowering Teachers

As part of the plan to accomplish the learning and earning goal, the new administration will advance policies for “teacher-driven learning models,” which, depending on the intended meaning of that phrase, might be a welcome shift away from what most educators consider “best practice” today: the student-driven learning models of constructivism, guided discovery, problem-based instruction and student collaboration as the models of choice.

A teacher-driven model is akin to direct instruction where the teacher explicitly introduces and presents the material, models its use, and guides students as they replicate and produce the lesson independently. It has a strong research base for advancing student achievement and is a viable and long-standing method of instruction used by many Catholic schools, especially schools choosing a Catholic liberal arts approach.

If I am correct in this interpretation, it will be interesting to see how the new administration’s advocacy for an instructional approach could be turned into a policy. Perhaps this is just rhetoric meant to appease those who oppose the Common Core State Standards, which reached into instructional approaches in both English and math. Trump, in a recent letter to Gail Buckley, president of the Catholic Leadership Conference, assured Catholics that he would end Common Core and protect and expand educational choice and the rights of homeschooling families.

This should be encouraging and affirming to those Catholic schools and dioceses that elected not to incorporate Common Core standards but held firm to their already proven standards and curriculum. Catholic schools that chose to incorporate Common Core might now move away from them, and in doing so, welcome back families who decided to homeschool, start their own small schools or place their children in Christian-based private schools.

While it’s still too soon to tell whether these initial programs will come to fruition, Catholic schools would be smart to keep their eye on these initiatives and define core aspects of their school culture in anticipation of a new influx of government-funded scholars.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is the deputy director of K-12 Education Programs at The Cardinal Newman Society and co-developer of the Newman Society’s Catholic School Curriculum Standards.

Originally published by The Cardinal Newman Society.