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

(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.

Anonymous

...The most under-educated Trump Official in the history of Education, and is shaming at the least. These voucher's value is bought by investors, as a means to clean money thru U.S. Banks. A money merchant controls billions of education funding.

Anonymous

This is a great article against vouchers but the case wasn’t made for staying in the public school system. Seems like they have the same problems..... students are being educated.

Jon Plummer

We as a parent in the state of Indiana, I do not agree with what has been written here. When the voucher program started here in Indiana I applied for the program to move my kids out of public school where there seemed to be more babysitting going on then teaching. Ok that is not 100% true but the problems in the system with discipline interfered with learning for those who wanted to learn.
I applied to a school that was a A+ school and was informed that I made too much.
I pay local and state taxes, property, pay for my kids school fees and all meals. There was no way I could afford to enroll my two kids without some help.
Well it just so happened that my daughters best friend told her mother about the program and they applied the same time we did.
This family was on food stamps, subsidized housing, free lunch and book program.
I know the family and this is not a knock on them just stating the facts. The mother is a single parent with three kids and struggle to care for them. The voucher program was the only way her kids were going to afford the school.
She ended up attending the private school from either 7th or 8th grade all the way through high school at no cost. That was the same for her siblings also.
That being said do not believe it was used to let the “rich” kids get their way paid to a private school because that is absolutely false.
The only thing that helped most kids get away from the rough schools to better academically based schools is that they could choose schools nearby and that is what most families did. And so you know these were not Private schools but county schools. In my area they are Lapel, Daleville, Frankfort, and Shanadoha.
Do not always believe everything you read because it fits a cause. I have found myself checking things because I found out there is a lot of lies and they are easy to believe if you want them to be true.

Anonymous

Do you all have any idea how much money is flowing through vouchers and charters directly into the bank accounts of people TOTALLY UNQUALIFIED TO BE EDUCATORS?

Anonymous

If public schools were adequately funded, there would be no need for "school choice" because all children would have access to a free quality education. Taking more money away from public schools and diverting it to private forms of education, is only making the problem worse. This is common sense. It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that. Since when has complicating a simple issue had a positive effect? Does anyone really think that wealthy politicians have the best interests of poor children in mind?

Anonymous

It never ceases to amaze me at how willing we are to turn over our democratic rights over to private control. Once you do this, you no longer have a voice in the education of your children or the direction of your local district. Once it goes private...you do not get to choose the school board members, you dont get to speak on behalf of your children and the educational process. How many of us do exercise that right presently? Here you live a democratic country where you are empowered to make sure institutions work for our good and you are willing to give that up. Amazing. One would think free (public),equal and high quality education would be one of the goals of a free democratic society; why would we want to give that up when we,the public, could just as easily participate in making our district public schools the highest quality education. Our public education is one of the things that made us leaders of the free world.

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