National media outlets report that Mike Pence is again touting the virtues of “school choice.” Evidently, in the alternate reality that he and Betsy DeVos inhabit, vouchers and other “choice” programs are working wonderfully.
The evidence suggests otherwise–unless by “working,” they mean subsidizing religious schools and benefitting business’ bottom line.
Two recent reports, one from the Washington Post and another, lengthy investigation from the New York Times, convincingly rebut Pence’s sunny view of these programs. The Post article begins with the contrast between Pence’s reality and the one the rest of us inhabit:
The Trump administration has made the District’s federally mandated school voucher program Exhibit A in its campaign to allow public funds to flow to private schools. Vice President Pence has called the 13-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “case study in school choice success.”
In truth, the performance of the D.C. voucher program calls into question the wisdom of spending upward of $200 million in federal tax money on private schooling in a city where students already have many educational choices. And it’s a cautionary tale of how badly crafted voucher initiatives can hurt the very students they’re designed to help.
The article details “disappointing” student achievement, poor oversight, and a lack of available information that would allow parents to make informed choices. As a result, significant numbers of eligible families turn down the vouchers.
The Times article is a lengthy, detailed look at Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and its embrace of for-profit charter schools.
Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.
The article makes an important point: it’s impossible to understand what happened in Michigan’s schools unless you recognize that for-profit schools aren’t in the business of education; they are in the business of business. These charters have become “potential financial assets to outside entities, inevitably complicating their broader social missions.”
The key phrase in the above paragraph is “broader social mission.” Unlike voucher schools, which are private and inevitably siphon resources from the public system, it is possible to operate charters successfully as options within a public school system. I would argue, however, that (a) the use of for-profit entities to manage such schools is incompatible with their social mission, and (b) strict oversight by and accountability to the relevant school board is essential.
The reason we call them public schools is because they serve a critical public function.
In the absence of any credible evidence that privatizing our schools improves either educational or civic outcomes, we should direct our energies–and our tax dollars–to improving our public systems.