AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump wants Congress to fund a broad expansion of school choice targeted at low-income African-American and Latino children.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.
CORNISH: That's from his address to Congress last night. Now, we don't have any details, but we do have some clues. And Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team is here to talk more about that. Hi there, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: First, what do we know about school choice and voucher programs right now in terms of whether or not they really work?
KAMENETZ: The evidence is very mixed. So take charter schools, which are publicly funded. About 1 in 5 of them around the country do a lot better than the public school competition. A big chunk of them do about the same. And some do worse. And the same is pretty true of voucher programs. Those are the ones that take public money to pay for private schools.
Some voucher-funded schools have higher test scores, higher graduation rates. But a study out of Louisiana last year showed recently that voucher students actually did worse. And they learned less each year they were in those private schools.
CORNISH: So choice isn't always a slam dunk.
KAMENETZ: So what researchers are telling me is that choice can deliver improvements and close achievement gaps, but they have to be very carefully designed. And that means they have to have a lot of oversight, a lot of accountability. When schools aren't working, they need to be closed.
Also, when we talk about choice, you know, you really can't discount the effort that it can take for families to have to research their options and have to apply, sometimes win lotteries in order to take advantage of these choices that they theoretically have.
CORNISH: In the meantime, you have been reporting recently on places where school choice is actually producing solid results. What's going on?
KAMENETZ: Right. So I recently talked to Richard Kahlenberg at The Century Foundation. And he's been tracking 100 districts and charter schools around the country that are pursuing social and economic integration through choice.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Low-income students do much better in economically-mixed schools. So choice can be used as a way of promoting those healthy socioeconomically diverse schools.
KAMENETZ: So what they've found is that schools of choice, whether magnet schools or charter schools, if they're designed to attract both low-income and middle-income families, they can do a lot better overall. And so an example might be a Montessori curriculum or a language immersion program. These programs, you know, they attract parents with a lot of choices. And the whole system can improve because more families of means are actually electing to use those public schools.
CORNISH: The president also highlighted a guest, Denisha Merriweather, last night.
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TRUMP: Today, she is the first in her family to graduate not just from high school, but from college. Later this year, she will get her master's degree in social work. We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.
CORNISH: She actually used something called a tax credit scholarship. I hadn't really heard of this program. It's a - sounds good, right? It's a combination of two things, a tax credit and a scholarship. But how do they actually work?
KAMENETZ: Right. This is really interesting. So there are about 20 of these tax credit scholarship programs around the country. Corporations can take money that they owe in state taxes and donate it instead to a scholarship fund. And the scholarship students like Merriweather in Florida can go to private schools, which includes religious schools.
And that last part is important because voucher school programs have sometimes faced constitutional challenges over the separation of church and state because you're taking that state money, putting it into a religious school. And the tax credit scholarship is seen as a way to get around that because that money there is technically never part of a public budget.
And, you know, you notice that Trump specifically mentioned both religious schools and home schooling last night. And that would be something really, really new, a federal program promoting the use of public funds for religious schools and for home schools.
CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed Team. Thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Audie.
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