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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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.

Kurt Tucholsky

Why do so many of us believe that uncontrolled private companies are more suited to taking care of children than public schools? Why do so many of us believe that it is better to provide what they think is a better education to a few kids of their choice, preferably using public funds to pay for it, rather than improving education for all? And why do we think that only the people that profit from those private schools, profit to the tune of millions of dollars a year, will tell us the "truth" about the effects of those schools? Our educational system, with its vast differences in funding based on state, region, and community, is already rediculously far removed from "justice for all". Why do we want to make it worse? And before you say that public education has failed, do you really believe that a nation that won two world wars, placed people on the moon, and became the leader of the free world cannot build and run a public school system, but people motivated by greed can?

Anonymous

We must eliminate the federal government's role in education. The centralized system of indoctrination should end and return the schools to the states, thus reducing the effect of our society's propaganda on entire generations at a time. The independence of our nation depends on an independent educational structure for a diverse population with freedom to experiment with various methods in different states.
Why create robots with a federalized education system?

Anonymous

Voucher programs often fail to hold private schools accountable for their students’ performance, fail to serve children in rural areas, hire staff without necessary degrees and fail to protect the rights of students with disabilities and other vulnerable young people.

Poor neighborhood schools become poorer and rich neighborhood become richer. Welcome to conservative America.

Anonymous

Out standing quality education and safer school environments. The school choice programs work. Most of the time they are cheaper and better for both students and parents. I'm relieved that I don't have children in the educational system anymore. When I did, public school was an abysmal failure.

Anonymous

Anonymous we should eliminate the teachers union as well.

Anonymous

Michigan is another one. Her home state. Where her family made all her money. Michigan schools are at the bottom now.

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