What Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Betsy DeVos Won't Tell You About 'School Choice'

Indiana has one of the most expansive private school voucher programs in the country, courtesy of Mike Pence. During his time as governor, Pence “removed the cap on the number of students who could qualify for a voucher to a private school, increased the limits on qualifying family income, and removed [a] stipulation that the student had to try the public school first,” according to a searing analysis of the state’s school choice failures by The Washington Post yesterday.

The result?

Last year alone, Indiana taxpayers financed private school education — nearly all religious — to the tune of $146.1 million “with most of it going to families who would have sent their children to private school anyway.” Oh, and by the way, a 2017 study of Indiana students in grades 3-8 who actually did use the voucher to transfer from a public to a private school showed that the voucher program had a negative impact on students’ academic achievement.

Those are the type of important details you didn’t hear or read last week from voucher proponents who dubbed the week, “National School Choice Week.” President Trump issued an official proclamation recognizing the “celebration,” while school choice supporters, such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Pence, wrote op-eds and deluged social media with platitudes about empowering parents and helping children achieve the “American dream.” There’s no question that parents should feel empowered when it comes to their child’s education, or that every student should be positioned to pursue their dreams, but that is not what the “school choice” movement is really about.

Rather “school choice” is a catch-all phrase that covers a variety of efforts to effectively privatize public education by diverting public education funds to private sources. It includes home schooling, charter schools, and virtual education, but it is mostly code for private school vouchers and similar programs, such as education savings accounts and tax credit scholarship programs. The school choice movement has been around for decades, working to expand its reach school district by school district and state by state.

With the election of President Trump and Vice President Pence and the appointment of Secretary DeVos, the movement has received an alarming boost. But it’s not the panacea that Trump and others claim. And privatizing public education in this way has serious consequences for students, civil rights, equality, and religious liberty.

As an initial matter, decades of studies show that vouchers generally do not improve educational outcomes. For example, a 2017 evaluation of the D.C. Scholarship Opportunity Program found a statistically significant negative impact on math achievement for voucher students overall. Likewise, kindergarten through fifth-grade students, who comprise the majority of the students in the program, were beset by statistically significant negative impacts in both reading and math. Meanwhile, participation in the voucher program had no statistically significant effect on student or parent satisfaction or students’ perception of safety.

Studies of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio, and Milwaukee, among others, likewise found negative or negligible impacts on students’ academic performance. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal analysis of Milwaukee’s program, published yesterday, found that “vouchers worked best when enrollment from voucher students was kept low.” However, “[a]s the percentage of voucher students rises, the returns diminish until the point when there is little difference between the performance of public and private institutions.” And, “[t]he vast majority of private schools participating in the program today have high percentages of publicly funded students.”

In other words, to be even mildly successful, voucher programs will not be able to assist all students. They cannot be the cure-all that proponents promise because the more voucher students a school takes on, the greater the negative impact on students’ academic performance.

Civil rights protections are also undermined by school voucher programs. Private voucher schools do not have the same obligations as public schools under federal law to protect students from harassment and discrimination. Unlike public schools, private voucher schools can discriminate against students based on their religion, LGBT status, disability, academic achievement, and disciplinary history. In fact, according to a 2016 report issued by the Government Accountability Office, only four voucher programs across the country required private schools to accept all students with vouchers, space permitting. Students in voucher schools also lose key First Amendment rights, due process rights, and other rights protected by the U.S. Constitution in public schools.

Accountability is virtually non-existent in many of these voucher programs, increasing the risk that the few rights retained by voucher students will be violated, that taxpayer funds will be mismanaged, and that the quality of the education provided by the school will be inferior. For instance, many voucher schools that receive taxpayer funds are not required to meet any standards for teacher qualifications, testing, or achievement. In some states, private school teachers need not even have a bachelor’s degree, and only 11 states require that voucher schools be accredited, meaning that voucher funds are often used to pay for tuition at unaccredited schools.

Many voucher schools, moreover, are religious. Schools not only discriminate against students and employees based on religion and other grounds, as noted above, but they also do not have to meet the same curricular requirements that public schools do. Many religious voucher schools, for example, teach creationism in science class. They also incorporate religious worship into the curriculum in the form of chapel, daily prayer, or daily scriptural readings and infringe upon basic principles of religious liberty by providing public funds for sectarian proselytizing.

These are just some of the facts about vouchers and school choice that President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary DeVos won’t tell you. We’ll continue to shine a light on how these programs fail students and undermine our public schools as proponents push them without regard to their effects on students’ academic performance, civil rights, and religious liberty.

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Anonymous

Disagree. The basis for 'school choice' is to circumvent federal civil rights laws - the Republicans have dressed up this issue to sell it to parents and taxpayers. We need to return to a free and strong public education for all. Let's approach low income, time stressed parents and teach them how to provide educational based home lives for students.

Sheila ennis

Case and point for why public schools with diverse student bodies - whether by design or accident - lift us all up. Those needing support get support and those with many gifts to share learn how to give of themselves- again, to lift us all up. This approach sounds pretty Jesus-y too, so it should work for Christians. But it won't because they're really seeking to hoard their privilege. #sad. .

Anonymous

Nice to see that even the old-folk racists are commenting on ACLU articles.

John

The same logic can be applied to immigration.

Anonymous

Yes, let's blame the children. Let me guess, you were one of those non-ghetto, highly motivated students from a family that actually values education, huh? FYI...you didn't hit a triple, you were BORN on third base.

DMM

There seems to be a confusion of terms here Creationists believe the universe and earth was created in 7earth days ,those who believe in creation just believe it was created by God (a very powerful being) even scientists believe the universe had a beginning but no scientist believe it was done in a matter of days.There is where the problem is .Proven science and creation are compatible

Gary

It does not misrepresent the study. The same would be true in any system, not just in urban systems. As one who ran a private school, I was aware that some of our students came because they did not do well, for various reasons, in the public system. For them, the school was helpful. However, even a good private schools are limited in what they can do. As the study noted, when there are a significant amount of students on vouchers, the system comes more closely to reflect the public school in the area. Private schools can be selective in which students attend, leaving out those whose test scores are lower; in addition, the parents of these children are usually more involved in their child’s education. The more that the school comes to reflect the public system, the more this is lost. Another factor with private schools is that they lack, generally, the ability to deal with special needs students, so rarely accept them. That the public system is able to compete evenly with private ones, when they have many special needs students to deal with, says something very good about public systems. For a few students, as the article says, private schools can be a god-send; but as an general alternative to public schools, they are not, and there are many other good reasons for strong public education as well. Public funding should be kept in public schools, and those that have problems should be worked on to make them better, rather than pulling money and resources out of them, which harms both the students and community.

James Baird

Between the Republican led cuts to State aid to local school systems and the hugh transfer of what monies are available to voucher programs, in the State of Michigan, many diistrits have begun using unpaid substitutes teachers with only two year teacher's assistant degrees. Why unpaid? There are no paid assistane positions open. Some high schools are now hiring those same assistants as nearly full time teachers, even if they are unqulifid to teach to the subject. This from two people who are the 2 yr degree holdrs who work in the western Michigan area school systems.

Gary

Southern states have been notorious for doing this. I lived in NC for seven years. We had military friends, one of whose spouse had a college degree in English - but not in eduation. She applied to a local school district as a sub. They called and asked if she would be willing to teach a class. They assigned her as a permanent full-time “substitute” in history and math classes! Their “subs” often only had a high school degree, so she was one of the better-qualified ones - with no background in education, math or history! She couldn’t believe it! What happens when you pay so low, and keep pulling funds from local districts. I also saw first-hand home schooling - it generally amounted to no schooling at all. They could choose whatever level testing they desired for their child, so you had kids that were hight school age taking fourth-grade achievement tests. Which is about where their educational development was. In New Orleans, they have given up onpublic education, with no new facilities having built since the 1970s. I talked to an educator there, who told me that they allow students to use servies that just send them a CD with classes on it, and get voucher money as if they were a real school. She came from NJ, and is running a school to help kids that have been kicked out of the system (most of them either aged out, or were kicked out for getting pregnant).

Anonymous

Are all these vouchers and schools using aligned curricilum and administering digital assessments ?

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