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.

View comments (66)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Reading, writing, and, arithmetic are not moral values. If you want your children to be taught YOUR values... teach them at home. Schools are not meant to raise your children, YOU are. The main point I got from this article is merely that school vouchers don't improve academic performance in things like reading and math. Of course, improving academic performance isn't the point of school vouchers; the point of school vouchers is to take public funding and apply it to private, often religiously affiliated schools that are more concerned with proselytizing religious dogma than teaching objective reality, like math. Since churches don't pay taxes, why should religious schools get public funding? Typical right wing hypocrisy.

Bartelby the Sc...

If the supreme court ruled that Hobby Lobby doesn't have to pay for insurance that includes birth control because it is against their beliefs, then why hasn't there been a federal lawsuit brought by taxpayers opposed to the use of their public tax dollars going to fund religious voucher schools?
As someone who was "raised" in a fundamentalist "christian" home, public school was my only respite from the onslaught of intellectual abuse. Public school, and public school teachers saved my life.

Kat

I do not want my taxes subsidizing religious schools...period. If you don't like public schools, you have the opportunity in most states to home educate. Since most people do not have the time to home school their kids and they prefer to send them to private school, fine. But I do not want to subsidize their child's education. Just like I don't like subsidizing Walmart employees because Walmart refuses to pay a living wage. There is much lobbying to make me pay for other people personal desires that effect that person only. I'm not interested in supporting the minority. Put my taxes to good use in protecting the majority and providing the best education possible by paying teachers the salary they deserve considering the educational requirements they must pass in order to be an educator. Do you want your kids taught by someone without a certificate or a person who continually adds to their qualifications by continuing their own education? Do not limit a child's education to the beliefs of the few but to the full insight of all things discovered throughout history and proven to be fact. Provide elective classes to those students who wish to pursue that particular field. I believe my city provides some of the best education available to a student through our public school system. The Constitution provides a specific ruling of separation of church and state. So be it, this is not in question, but those who wish to circumvent the Constitutional requirements of our country by calling religious schools voucher schools is just another way of stealing our taxes for personal gain.

Anonymous

This article grossly misrepresents the conclusion of the WSJ article concerning the impact of vouchers when enrollment with vouchers is limited.
When vouchers allow a handful of students from public schools in urban ghettos to escape into a private school, those students are lifted up by the association with a large number of motivated students. When the numbers from the ghetto grow too large, they become the center of gravity and drag down the achievement of the original students. It is not the number of vouchers used, but the balance of students from single-parent or no-parent households which results in the negative result. The same can be seen in ANY urban school setting where federal race policy has concentrated students with little home support, resources or example while chasing away students from homes which value education.

Anonymous

Racist much?

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.

Pages

Stay Informed