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

You are poorly informed. Private RELIGIOUS schools at ALL levels do NOT receive taxpayer money from the Federal Dept. of Education. The being that our CONSTITUTION states a SEPARATION of church and state. These voucher programs are a scheme (begun in the 1950s as a direct backlash from the Brown v. BOE case) by extreme right wing monied conservatives to, not only, out-maneuver this CONSTITUTIONAL element but to bring back school segregation so their white kids don't have to mix with black, brown, yellow, red, polka-dotted ones. Also, to equate teaching 'religion' through historical, artistic and literary lenses in high school/college with actual RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS (which is code for 'CHRISTIAN', because, you know, DeVos -Pence-Trump are NOT championing the Muslim/Hindi/Atheist/Sikh/Jain/Jewish religious schools) simply betrays your own ignorance.

Susan

Why is home schools listed as recipients of vouchers. As far as I know, home schools were never allowed to partake of the educational pie. As a veteran home educator with 14 years of experience, I home schooled to offer my children a better education than public school. However, it appears that many church schools offer skewed views of science, multiplication with Jesus, and other propaganda supporting educational endeavors. That should not be funded by the public sector. We need private school, as the Michigan Superintendent of Schools pointed out, we do not have enough public schools to educate all the children in the state. So, can genesis be substituted for science? Not in my school.

Anonymous

Any public funding of a private option is totally wrong to me. We need to fund and strengthen public schools, not erode them by funneling dollars to vouchers. I rue the day that the first voucher program was ever conceived. It should never have passed muster under our constitution. The primary reason they pushed for school choice was because parents didn't like the racially diverse school their child would have been sent to. So instead of joining their community, and working to improve the funding and curriculum for everyone in that public school, they wanted the right to take "their" funds and go elsewhere. They have played the system. They get to take their child's dollars over to a private and usually religious school where they would have happily paid the tuition themselves if they didn't get the windfall of a voucher. They don't want their child to go to a diverse school and they are able to self-segregate in this supposedly legal, but woefully immoral, way. They can concoct whatever rationale they can come up with, but we know what their motivation is. How sad that you don't care about your community. Your tax dollars are not just for you. They are to serve the needs of the whole community. Even if your child doesn't go to a public school it's your responsibility as a citizen to support public schools.

Mark Osgatharp

"Any public funding of a private option is totally wrong to me."

So are you opposed to public tuition funding for private college? If not, explain to me the difference between public tuition for a private college and public tuition for a private elementary or high school?

"The primary reason they pushed for school choice was because parents didn't like the racially diverse school their child would have been sent to."

Probably true in some cases. But it is as certainly true that many others did so because they didn't want their children indoctrinated into evolution, agnosticism and sexual perversion. It is also true that many private religious schools are racially diverse.

Anonymous

I find this funny. The teachers have their hands tied at public schools because there are may students who do not have parents who are involved with their education unless someone “accuses” their child of being disruptive in some way. The school system has no control of problem kids and most kids know that there is no serious Consequences

Anonymous

To Mark A:
Re: Mark A.
The difference between public tuition for a private college and public tuition for a private elementary or high school is that the right to a free, public, elementary and high school education is granted to every American elementary or high school-aged student. However, the quality of such an education is decreased by the funneling of government funds into private institutions; an issue that other commenters have satisfactorily elaborated upon. Although these “vouchers” are advertised as increasements of opportunity for less privileged students, in reality they do more harm to minority students than good. We should focus on the public schools that all students are entitled to, and that no student can be denied from based on her race, religious views, or sexual orientation.
As a sophomore in high school and a high-performing student, I understand more than anyone the importance of attending college. The college I choose to attend in two years will most likely be a private institution. It will also most likely generate most of its fundings itself. I will be privileged enough to recieve a scholarship because my family is not privileged enough to afford tuition costs.

Anonymous

(Whoever reviews these, please disregard my other accidental comment and post this completed one instead, leaving out this message. If you don’t, and I do get approved... Well then this is quite embarrassing.)
Re: Mark A.
The difference between public tuition for a private college and public tuition for a private elementary or high school is that the right to a free, public, elementary and high school education is granted to every American elementary or high school-aged student. However, the quality of such an education is decreased by the funneling of government funds into private institutions; an issue that other commenters have satisfactorily elaborated upon. Although these “vouchers” are advertised as increasements of opportunity for less privileged students, in reality they do more harm to minority students than good. We should focus on the public schools that all students are entitled to, and that no student can be denied from based on her race, religious views, or sexual orientation.
As a sophomore in high school and a high-performing student, I understand more than anyone the importance of attending college. The college I choose to attend in two years will most likely be a private institution. It will also most likely generate most of its fundings itself. I will be privileged enough to recieve a scholarship because my family is not privileged enough to afford tuition costs. Other scholarship students at that private institution will be in situations similar to mine, because students with families who can afford to pay their tuition costs do not recieve major scholarships. However, these same students can recieve “vouchers” to “increase” the opportunity they already had during their elementary and high school years.

Anonymous

Hey Mark, most of the college funding you are brining up comes in the form of loans from the federal government. Nobody is taking money away from a state's college system and giving it to private colleges. BIG DIFFERENCE.

Anonymous

I could not AGREE more with your articulately stated opinion. Thank you.

Anonymous

The voucher system pulls away money from public schools, leaving them with less funds for all the other students. Private schools can discriminate in any way they choose, and usually are not equipped to take children with disabilities, etc., which makes their scores higher (although not always, even with that advantage!). They can also rid themselves of low-performing students, making themselves look better than they are. While some strive toward excellence and meeting the same educational requirements as public schools (I ran one that did), many are just an excuse for getting out of giving children a decent education - their purpose is not education, but indoctrination. Although I ran a religious-based school, I believe funding from the state or federal government should be very limited to these schools, if any at all. If they receive vouchers, they should have to meet the same qualifications as public schools as far as teacher prep, libraries, quality of curriculum, etc.. Our school received mostly children who had difficulty in the public system - it had open classrooms; some do well with that, some do not. We also received a couple of kids that had problems with bullying, and some that needed a close, caring network in order to thrive. If parents were unable to afford the cost, we provided scholarships, funded by the sponsoring organiation. I believe that is how it should be done. Public schools, especially in poorer areas, are always underfunded to begin with. Taking more money from them for a few students, to give to questionable programs, is unconscienable.

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