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President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may think private school voucher schemes are an education panacea, but past federal education officials – including those who worked for conservative administrations – are less optimistic.
“If you try something and it’s experimental, and the experiment doesn’t work, why would you want to do it again and again and again?” Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush, asked during a speech in Texas in late March. “That’s what we’re doing now with . . . vouchers.”
Ravitch, who writes extensively about education issues on her eponymous blog, told the gathering of Friends of Texas Public Schools that she once supported the concept of vouchers until the results started coming in that the programs weren’t improving education.
“We now have this very strong ideological interest in school choice as an answer,” Ravitch said. But “we have a lot of research about school choice. This is not a new subject any more. We’ve been doing it for 25 years and the places that have adopted . . . vouchers have seen no gains.”
Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education and is a past president of the pro-voucher education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, admitted recently on the institute’s Flypaper blog that vouchers are unlikely to be useful for people who live in rural areas – a demographic that overwhelmingly went for Trump in November’s election.
“Choice, save for the virtual kind, is harder to make work in spread out suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, where one seldom has workable access to multiple schools,” Finn wrote. “I strongly suspect that most Trump voters with kids – to the extent that education is on their minds – are chiefly interested in having their current schools work better, ensure a decent and prosperous future for their students, including readiness for real jobs.”
Ravitch and Finn bring up two of the numerous reasons that the National Coalition for Public Education cites for opposing school voucher schemes: They don’t significantly improve academic outcomes for students – and in some cases voucher students perform worse than their public school peers – and voucher programs are likely to do great harm to the country’s rural school districts.
NCPE, a partnership of education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations that Americans United co-chairs, enumerates nearly a dozen reasons to oppose vouchers: depriving students of their civil rights, lacking accountability, using taxpayer money to fund religious education and undermining the public education system are among the coalition’s objections.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump and DeVos from touting vouchers. Trump wants to make a down payment on his campaign pledge to funnel $20 billion in federal education money toward so-called “school choice” by setting aside $1.4 billion in part for voucher programs in his proposed preliminary budget for the next fiscal year – all the while slashing the overall education budget by 13 percent.
He and DeVos have talked up vouchers and tuition tax credits, another form of vouchers, since they took office this year. During his first address to the joint Congress in late February, Trump said: “I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”
His speech came the same day the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released one of the latest reports to outline the shortcomings of vouchers. The report, which looks at voucher programs in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, New York City and overseas, argues the minimal gains produced by voucher programs in graduation rates and college attendance (gains which may not even be attributable to vouchers) are not worth the risks to public education.
“[R]isks include increased school segregation; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear,” wrote report author Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University.
“The report suggests that giving every parent and student a great ‘choice’ of educational offerings is better accomplished by supporting and strengthening neighborhood public schools with a menu of proven policies, from early childhood education to after-school and summer programs to improved teacher pre-service training to improved student health and nutrition programs,” Carnoy wrote. “All of these yield much higher returns than the minor, if any, gains that have been estimated for voucher students.”
But a few weeks after Carnoy suggested boosting after-school and summer programs and teacher training, those were among the Department of Education initiatives Trump earmarked for cuts.
Carnoy’s report for EPI is only one of the latest studies to be issued in the last 18 months that showcase the shortcomings of voucher programs. Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at the non-partisan think tank New America, recently detailed for The New York Times the dismal results of voucher programs in three states:
Indiana: In late 2015, a Notre Dame University study examined the Indiana voucher program that grew to become one of the country’s largest under then governor, now Vice President Mike Pence. “In mathematics, voucher students who transferred to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement,” the researchers reported, according to Carey. They also found no improvement in reading.
Louisiana: In February 2016, a study of Louisiana’s voucher program conducted by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found students who used vouchers to transfer to private schools performed worse in both math and reading. In the first year, elementary students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile. Carey reported that Martin West, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, called Louisiana’s negative results “‘as large as any I’ve seen in the literature’ — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.”
Ohio: Last June, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a study funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation. Focused largely on Ohio, the study reported: “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”
Two other studies have been released so far this year to join the chorus of concerns about “school choice.”
Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation who researches public policy to address educational inequality, examined DeVos’ comment during her Senate confirmation process that “empirical evidence finds school choice programs lead to more integrated schools than their public school counterparts.”
To the contrary, Potter found that “voucher programs on balance are more likely to increase school segregation than to decrease it or leave it at the status quo.” Potter considered not only racial diversity, but religious diversity as well: “(D)ata suggest that there is a strong risk that voucher programs will be used by white families to leave more diverse public schools for predominantly white private schools and by religious families to move to parochial private schools, increasing the separation of students by race/ethnicity and religious background.”
Both the March study from The Century Foundation and a February report by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) note that about 80 percent of students who attend private schools are being educated at religious institutions, which are therefore among the largest beneficiaries of voucher programs.
The NBER report looked at how this impacted Catholic church finances in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program. While church revenue for school-related activities has increased, revenue and expenditures for other church missions decreased to the tune of $60 million over the 14-year period that was reviewed.
“These results indicate that voucher programs could have large and potentially unanticipated impacts on religious life in the United States in years to come,” the report’s authors wrote. “The idea that public funding would provide an important, even dominant, source of support to congregations would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But this possibility has quickly become reality …our work highlights the complexity of this relationship: the meteoric growth of vouchers could provide financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.”
All these reports and studies, plus plenty of others, stack up to an overwhelming body of evidence that voucher programs are problematic. And yet Trump and DeVos continue the campaign. Trump used his very first presidential visit to a school to tour a private Catholic school that benefits from Florida’s tuition tax credit program, a type of voucher scheme. And DeVos as recently as April 5 touted “school choice” during a visit to a Washington, D.C., charter school with First Lady Melania Trump and Jordan’s Queen Rania Al-Abdullah.
While conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and EdChoice generally support vouchers, they aren’t fans of getting the federal government as involved as Trump and DeVos want, according to a March article by U.S. News & World Report.
“I’m certainly more heartened by what the Trump administration is talking about in education than what the Obama administration was, but I’m not actually interested in Washington trying to lead the parade on choice,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
To date, there is only one federally funded school voucher program: the Opportunity Scholarship Program that uses $20 million annually to fund vouchers for about 1,200 students in Washington, D.C. Despite studies showing the program is not improving education and opposition from the majority of the members on D.C.’s council, a House committee in March agreed to forward a bill to reauthorize the program for another five years to the House floor for a vote, which had not yet occurred at Church & State’s press time.
The committee declined to include amendments to the bill that would have strengthened the program’s evaluation process, required participating private schools to adhere to civil rights protections for students with disabilities and protected LGBTQ students from discrimination.
A lack of civil rights protections for students is one of several reasons U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), a leader on education policy, cited for objecting to Trump’s school privatization efforts in a 20-page memo she wrote to her Senate colleagues on March 22. (The memo cites a Feb. 2011 Church & State article, “10 Reasons Why Private School Vouchers Should Be Rejected,” among its many sources.)
“Congressional proposals to create federal voucher programs disregard this history of discrimination and fail to reaffirm that any private schools receiving taxpayer dollars must be subject to certain civil rights laws, including the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act),” Murray wrote. “This leaves children and families interested in these schools at risk of discrimination and harassment without the tools provided by our civil rights laws to enforce their rights.”
The lack of accountability and transparency involved in voucher programs and the impact these programs could have on rural schools were among the other objections Murray raised. The last point – how rural students will fare under voucher programs – has gained attention lately. In addition to the commentary from Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Finn, recent articles in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and the education blogs Education Week and Chalkbeat have detailed the problems rural families would face.
The Atlantic article quotes Karen Eppley, editor of the Journal of Research in Rural Education and associate professor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education: “School choice is really complicated in rural areas not only because of the distance and financial constraints that many rural families have, but also because rural schools tend to function as anchors in their communities. Rural citizens tend to be highly involved with their schools; the schools are often the social anchor of the community, and they provide services not available elsewhere, like sports, summer lunch programs, night classes and food pantries.”
Eppley noted that even if just a few students left a small rural school, the loss of public funds coupled with the potential cost of transporting those students to distant alternative schools could be crippling: “(I)t can be financially devastating to schools that are already operating on the proverbial shoestring.”
Alan Richard, from the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, in a Chalkbeat column noted that about 9 million students attend rural schools – more than the combined enrollment of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and the next 75 largest school districts. And many of those students are from low-income families, he added.
“Rural students and families often have no viable choices beyond their local public school. That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast, Southwest, and on Native American lands,” Richard wrote. “In these areas, the next-closest school can be very far away. Trump’s vouchers, therefore, would rarely be a reasonable option. Charter schools aren’t prevalent in rural areas either, and likely never will be, given the expense of running isolated schools.”
Concerns over the impact of vouchers on rural schools helped to sink a voucher plan in Texas last month. Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives joined forces with conservative Republican lawmakers from small towns and rural areas to add language to the state budget mandating that no public funds be spent on private schools. The vote was seen as a message to the Texas Senate, which had passed a bill creating “education savings accounts” (another name for vouchers).
A recent story in The Washington Post stressed this issue as well. The story focused on a remote community called East Millinocket in Maine, which fears losing money if voucher plans come to pass.
“That could be disastrous,” said Eric Steeves, superintendent of schools in East Millinocket. “We’d lose tuition money. If we’re forced to bus students wherever they want, it would be catastrophic.”
Steeves noted that the nearest city of any size, Bangor, is more than an hour away. He said he feared that under a voucher plan, his district might be compelled to pay for busing students to private schools there.
“It may be up to their town to pay for that. And in this weather, it would be horrific,” Steeves said.
Steeves also pointed out that in a small, rural community that has been wracked by economic downturns, public schools play an important role. They remain a focal point for the community.
“If you shut down schools, you destroy a town,” Steeves told The Post. “There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”
But it isn’t just rural Americans who oppose vouchers. Polls have shown that opposition to voucher schemes is widely shared by Americans across the board. Phi Delta Kappa, an international organization for professional educators, regularly polls Americans to get their opinions on vouchers. Polls have shown opposition to vouchers ranging from 57 percent to as high as 70 percent.
More tellingly, Americans in rural, urban and suburban areas have voted against vouchers repeatedly at the ballot box. Since the 1960s, vouchers (or similar plans) have appeared on ballots in several states as referendum questions. All have been defeated, usually by wide margins.
Ravitch, in her speech to the Friends of Texas Public Schools, said aside from the negative educational and financial implications of voucher schemes, there’s a social and civic impact as well.
“A public school brings people together. A public school is a place where people learn democracy. For many people, it’s the first opportunity they have to work together with their neighbors toward a common goal. To work together on behalf of their shared goals for their children.
“I don’t want to see our public schools wiped out,” Ravitch said. “They’re part of our democracy. They’re one of our basic democratic institutions.”