Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
President Donald Trump

Picking up on an issue that has virtually disappeared from his policy agenda, President Donald Trump called on Congress in his State of the Union speech to approve “school choice” legislation — without providing any details about what he has in mind.

“To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children,” Trump said.

His comments came against the backdrop of a clamor in several California school districts and from teachers unions to impose a moratorium on charter school expansion. As charter schools have expanded in California, private school enrollments have dropped steadily over the past several decades.

This week Gov. Gavin Newsom asked State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to set up a first-of-its-kind panel to look into the financial impact of charter schools on districts in California, which has a disproportionately large share of the nation’s charter schools.

Trump did not address an issue affecting tens of thousands of high school and college students — legalizing the status of about 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children with their parents, and received temporary relief from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Their status is currently uncertain as a result of Trump’s efforts to abolish the program. About 75,000 of them are enrolled in California’s public colleges and universities.

Two years ago, Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. Her main priority over several decades had been to expand “school choice” programs, including both taxpayer support to underwrite tuition at private schools and expanding charter schools. However, Trump has had no success in advancing that agenda during his first two years in the White House.

Trump came to office calling for a $20 billion school choice program. Just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, he promised a program that would provide vouchers to low-income children to attend whatever schools they chose — charters, private schools or public schools — without giving any indication of where those funds would come from. He said that within 100 days of being elected, he would introduce what he called the School Choice and Opportunity Act.

“There is no policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” Trump said in a speech in Cleveland on Sept. 16, blaming Democrats for “trapping millions of African-American and Hispanic youth” in schools where students perform poorly on standardized tests.

While clinging to his campaign promise to build a border wall, his ambitious school choice programs have not materialized. He did include a $1.4 billion school choice proposal in his first budget. The plan called for increasing funding for charter schools, along with a $250 million for private school tuition subsidies. An additional $1 billion would have allowed parents to send their children to the public schools of their choice.

But that proposal went nowhere in Congress, and since then school choice initiatives on the part of the administration have languished.

On one issue that offers potential for bipartisan agreement, in his State of the Union address Trump called again for more spending on improving the nation’s physical infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” he said.

Like school choice, Trump has not made the half trillion dollar infrastructure campaign pledge a priority of his administration. Last week, Democrats in Congress introduced a $100 billion initiative for school construction and renovation, including technology upgrades. But Trump did not indicate whether the infrastructure program he referred to would be targeted at schools in any way.

As he did in his State of the Union speech last year, Trump also called for expansion of paid leave for parents with newborn children.

“I am also proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave — so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child,” Trump said.

In his campaign, Trump pledged to support six weeks of paid parental leave, but it is another program he has not actively promoted. California offers six weeks of parental leave with partial pay to eligible workers. But in his recent budget proposal, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for extending that to six months, which if it happened would be the longest such leave offered anywhere in the nation.


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