Trump’s School Voucher Plan: No Reason to Give Thanks

Yesterday, Trump’s appointed his next “I met them at a cocktail party once” cabinet member. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a huge proponent of school vouchers. (Meaning, you get an amount spent per pupil to spend in any private school.) You may be wondering, now that sounds great! Why are you telling me vouchers so bad? Great question. And, who knows, with any luck, it’ll come up at Thanksgiving dinner tonight.

So you can thrive in an education policy discussion tomorrow with your wonky, yet lovable, free-markety uncle, here are my Top 6 Reasons Vouchers are Not a Panacea:

1) Lack of quality control. Opaque governance practices + opaque financial practices + tons of taxpayer $, what could go wrong, right?! Ha. More like a recipe for disaster. There would be no way to govern or hold accountable a new set of schools that would now be receiving taxpayer dollars. That means, no public oversight, and worse, no legal remedy for folks to force schools to open their books or be transparent about their practices. They wouldn’t be government entities, and therefore can operate in whatever way they want. We would see a rise in for-profit schools, virtual schools, hyper-religious institutions, all surviving on taxpayer dollars. Take a look at the stats on virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio for a useful illustration of why leaving quality control up to the market is problematic in K-12 education.

2) First Amendment, Separation of Church and State issues: Private school means private governance, private decisions on hiring, admissions, etc. A teacher of a religious school funded by taxpayer dollars could be fired for being gay (it has happened in NJ); students could be kicked out of a religious school for speaking out against church values etc. These things can happen legally at private schools, as long as it is not specifically discriminatory, but the First Amendment says such practices must not be funded with taxpayer dollars.

3) There is a supply-side problem. There are simply not enough seats in well-established private schools to help the system at large, and creating new schools willy-nilly, with no oversight, leads to bad things. Check out Florida and Michigan for ideas about just how bad things get when schools open and close like bodegas on the corner, with little oversight and transparency.

4) Exclusion of “more expensive” students. It doesn’t cost the same to educate each student. Some students are more expensive to educate, others less so. The factors that make a child more expensive include: English language learners, disabilities (physical or cognitive), a background of poverty or trauma, learning issues like dyslexia, and so on. With vouchers, students would all be given the same amount to spend wherever they wanted- so there would be no incentive for schools to take the “more expensive” kids. An education system relies on a cross-subsidy of sorts, this would create major, unfair distortions in that system. What would probably happen is that the “more expensive” folks would remain concentrated in underfunded public schools, as the system is slowly starved. And what a shameful travesty that would be.

5) Vouchers give the actual final “choices” to schools, not parents. Public schools have to take each and every kid, no matter what. Which is a beautiful and messy thing! Private schools can admit and reject whoever they want. Voucher advocates say this is true school choice, but really, it places the choice of who is worthy of an education at X school in the hands of that school. This doesn’t give parents choice, it gives private schools choice about who they want to educate, using taxpayer dollars.

6) Voucher amounts are just too low for most kids to afford private school. And, as the richest kids leave, segregation would increase and the district’s budget would be reduced drastically. Milwaukee, for example, has a voucher system where each kid gets $7,500. There are precious few private schools anywhere near that price point in NJ. Just off the top of my head…Delbarton costs $36,000/year. Chris Christie, with four children at Delbarton would save $30,000, so no wonder people with kids already in private school love this deal. Vouchers are effectively a subsidy for upper middle class-income families to help them pay for more expensive private school.  For everyone else, good luck coming up with the rest to foot the bill. Meanwhile, poorer kids would attend schools starved of resources.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my fellow wonks out there.

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