In this, the third and final installment of our Education Gets Trumped series, we will once again lead off by acknowledging that education has not been a major priority for the president. Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been marked by highly-contested cabinet nominations, controversial Executive Orders, and surprise military actions. Obscured in the smoke and fury of Trump’s first few months has been a quiet but consequential movement in education policy.
In Part I of our Education Gets Trumped series, we addressed Trump’s passing threat to eliminate the Department of Education. (By the way, in recent news, there is currently a bill in the House, H.R. 899, which says, in its entirety, that “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.” It has a snowball’s chance in Arizona of passing, but still…)
In Part II, we discussed Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate Common Core. This promise, we explain, demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of Common Core, which is not federal law but which was adopted state by state.
While these positions give us a strong sense of where Trump stands on education policy, they do little else. Both pledges are short on detail and limited in feasibility.
By contrast, our third installment addresses the cornerstone of the new president’s education policy: School Choice. Again, education played a minute role in the 2016 presidential election. However, every time the subject did come up, Trump reiterated both his desire to see a major reduction in the federal influence over state and local education practices and to drastically expand state voucher programs. Notably absent from Trump’s remarks, campaign promises, or ideological background is any support for traditional public schools or any discussion on what policies might be employed to improve their performance and outcomes.
Hereafter, we’ll examine Trump’s campaign promises, the actions that have been taken to make these promises a reality, and what this all means for schools, teachers, and students.
In September of 2016, during a campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump declared that “There’s no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government run education monopoly.”
He promised to earmark $20 billion dollars of federal funding for vouchers, which would give students living in failing or impoverished districts an opportunity to acquire public grants to attend private, charter, or home schools. In essence, this expenditure would channel public funding into privately run educational institutions.
Trump argued that this would promote a free-market approach to education in which the imperatives of capitalism drive all schools to perform at a higher level. As a candidate, he argued that “Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produces better outcomes.”
While there has only been marginal policy movement in the area of education, Trump has signaled on a number of levels that this voucher-driven approach to “school choice” remains a priority. The clearest signal came with the selection of Betsy DeVos to head up the Department of Education.
Betsy DeVos may be among the most outspoken advocates for charter schools and voucher programs in the nation. As we will discuss in a section hereafter, DeVos was a leading architect of the charter and voucher programs that swept through Detroit in the last two decades. In public appearances both since her nomination and confirmation, DeVos has taken every opportunity to advocate for the notion of school choice. As with Trump, she has rarely offered insight or even a sense of interest in the performance of traditional public schools. Also like Trump, It has largely been her position that voucher programs are the key to opening up competition and, consequently, producing better performing schools across the board.
Trump also reiterated his campaign pledge during his first appearance before the joint houses of Congress in the spring of 2017. Trump called “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.”
How much success DeVos and Trump will have in pursuing their agenda is not clear, but we can at least operate on the assumption that this is the leading educational priority for the current administration. And according to Time Magazine, there is Congressional sympathy for this position, even if the actual policy details remain hazy. Time reports that “Both Representative Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House committee on education, and Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate version, have supported voucher initiatives in the past. Last year, Alexander introduced an amendment that would have allowed federal funding to follow low-income students to the public or private school of their choice.”
Whether this will happen in sweeping fashion or through piecemeal legislation, Trump spoke unequivocally about expanding school choice as president. It is also the position most clearly embodied in the decision to make DeVos the nation’s educational minister. Indeed, outside of her work as a lobbyist for educational privatization, DeVos has no education-related experience at all. School choice is also the centerpiece of a new piece of legislation bleeding through the House of Representatives today.
Most notably, school choice expansion is really the only Trump education policy that is actually achievable.
But what does this mean? What does it mean for traditional public education? For the future of America’s schools? For the improvement of opportunities for the disadvantaged and the enhancement of programs serving our best and brightest? What of teaching standards, funding, resources, after school programs, and infinite other areas likely to see some dramatic changes in the coming years?
And if Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos succeed fully in carrying out their “school choice” agenda, who will benefit, who will suffer, and where will it lead us as a nation? Trump promised sweeping and disruptive change in Washington and throughout the U.S. This may be one area in which he can actually deliver, but what will that mean for us?
In short, this represents a major shift away from the prioritization of traditional public schools and toward the privatization of education in America. Traditional public schools will suffer, as will their students and teachers. Those traditional public schools that are already disadvantaged will, as usual, suffer most.
What is School Choice?
Let’s begin with the Wikipedia definition of School Choice as our starting point, mostly because the language here is free from political bias. Wikipedia says the following:
“School choice is a term for K–12 public education options in the United States, describing a wide array of programs offering students and their families alternatives to publicly provided schools, to which students are generally assigned by the location of their family residence. In the United States, the most common—both by number of programs and by number of participating students—school choice programs are scholarship tax credit programs, which allow individuals or corporations to receive tax credits toward their state taxes in exchange for donations made to non-profit organizations that grant private school scholarships. In other cases, a similar subsidy may be provided by the state through a school voucher program. Other school choice options include open enrollment laws (which allow students to attend public schools outside of the district in which the students live), charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, education savings accounts (ESAs), and individual tax credits or deductions for educational expenses.”
During her confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos spoke in support of school choice. Expressing something of a mission statement on the subject, DeVos argued that “Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious or any combination thereof.”
Supporters of this approach believe that their children should have the right to seek out tax-funded alternatives to traditional public education as a remedy for their dissatisfaction with the quality of public education. Those who are critical of school choice view it as a way to undermine traditional public schools, deprive them of funding, divert public money to private interests, and ultimately magnify the already severe inequalities that blight America’s educational landscape.
To an extent, both sides are right. However, the reality is very much tied into the manner in which school choice policies are carried out. While Donald Trump has labeled his policy orientation as “school choice,” it would be more accurate to describe it as voucherism. As shown above, school choice has a fairly broad definition. Within this encompassing definition, the ideas of choice and alternatives are not inherently controversial.
By contrast, vouchers—which channel public money into charter or private educational institutions—lead into a wide spectrum of concerns regarding a deprivation funding for traditional public schools; the use of public funding for schools that are not beholden to the same accountability standards; increased control over education by corporate interests; the use of public funding for religious institutions; and the magnification of already persistent racial, regional and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
This suggests that the nature of school choice implementation is important, as are the “choices” that are available to students.
DeVos Does Detroit Dirty
The best model that we have for predicting what implementation would look like under the Trump/DeVos vision of school choice comes from the Secretary’s own resume. First, it bears noting that the path DeVos took to arrive at the top of the Department of Education was literally the most embattled in the position’s history. The Senate was so divided on the nominee that, for the first time ever, the Vice President was forced to cast the decisive tie-breaking vote to confirm a Secretary of Education. (By the way, it is not insignificant that Vice President Mike Pence also presided over one of the largest state voucher program expansions ever as governor of Indiana.)
Among the reasons that the DeVos nomination was so fiercely contested was her lack of experience in the education sphere. But another pressing reason that DeVos faced such staunch opposition was her connection to for-profit charter schools and voucher programs. This also seems to couple with what many have observed as her troubling lack of commitment to the traditional public school system. Her track record and her early work as Secretary of Education seem to confirm these impressions. The Washington Post reports on her recent comments in an interview, where she predicted that under her watch, “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”
This is precisely the perspective that DeVos brought to her work as a Republican National Committeewoman for Michigan (1992–1997) and, subsequently, as the chairwoman for the Michigan Republican Party (1996–2000). DeVos was an aggressive advocate of school vouchers and championed a massive overhaul of the Detroit public school system that was based primarily on the proliferation of charter schools.
It is also this track record that has alarmed so many educators and administrators. Putting aside the fact that DeVos rarely makes positive mention of traditional public schools and seems to have little to no interest in their improvement, many objective observers share the view that the Detroit charter school experiment has largely been a failure. If Detroit is a model for the future outlook of education in the U.S., one could anticipate improved outcomes for a percentage of those attending charter or private institutions, and the continued collapse of its traditional public education system. If the goal was to improve outcomes for all of Detroit’s children—and not just some of those with access to vouchers—DeVos presided over a widely-panned education overhaul.
According to an op-ed in the New York Times, “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, [DeVos] is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”
The op-ed points out that among all the blighted urban communities that participate in National Assessment of Educational Progress testing, Detroit doesn’t just score at the bottom in reading and math. It does so by a drastic margin. The next worst city doesn’t even come close. This, the Times points out, is partially a consequence of lackluster charter school performance. The greater failure, however, is the diversion of funds from already-struggling public schools to vouchers.
In truth, those lucky few who manage not just to gain access to charter schools but specifically to those charter schools which are living up to their promises, do see improved opportunities. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, students in charter schools in Michigan have outperformed their peers in traditional public schools, accumulating an additional two months of reading and math gains per school year. In the city of Detroit specifically, 35% of charters outpace public school learning in reading and 42% outperform public schools in math.
The study also points out that minority, impoverished and at-risk students seem to benefit most from access to charter schools. Such is to say that, on its face, school choice is not a bad thing. So why was the Detroit policy such a disaster? To answer that, you have to ask public school teachers.
An article in Vice sums up the dynamic pretty well:
The gutting of Detroit’s public schools is the result of an experiment started 23 years ago, when education reformers including Betsy DeVos, now Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department, got Michigan to bet big on charters and school choice. The Obama administration has promoted competition, but DeVos looks set to take free-market education policy to new heights. She has made clear her goal is to use charters to eventually get public dollars to private and religious schools, but the consequences of her school choice policy in Detroit leave gaping questions about how she will also care for America’s public schools.
And as long as we’re taking a free market approach to education, let’s consider what things look like in Detroit, where central oversight is largely provided by privately owned charter management companies.
According to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 14% of charter students demonstrate below average achievement in reading and 25% do so in math. An additional 51% of charters treading water in reading; 33% in math. What all of these failing or mediocre charter schools have in common is an absence of central standards or accountability. At the heart of the “school choice” movement is the ideological imperative that suggests schools should be in a position to shape curriculum, evaluation, and priorities without federal or state interference. So while a percentage of charter schools are performing up to or beyond expectations, there are numerous others over the last two decades that have performed miserably without intervention.
Legislation recently passed in Michigan now imposes greater statewide oversight on failing charter schools. But it bears noting that DeVos lobbied hard against the eventually-passed bill. Take that as a cue for how DeVos might handle efforts to impose federal oversight on the operation of charter schools in the coming years.
However, with 80% of the charter schools in Detroit being owned and operated by for-profit ventures, it isn’t entirely clear that these curricula, evaluations, and priorities are informed by best practices, motivated by that which is most beneficial students, or beholden to any overarching standards of quality or equal opportunity. It is worth noting here that school choice, as a concept, need not necessitate the privatization of education. The vast majority of charter schools operating in the nation today are public schools. But DeVos bring Detroit’s model of voucherism to the national stage, and with it, a privateer’s philosophy of “school choice.” Even if charter strategies have fared marginally better in other contexts—take Washington D.C. as a far less disastrous example than Detroit—the DeVos approach promises to mimic the failed experiment in the Motor City.
Today, the model in Detroit has gradually descended into something chaotic, a patchwork of charter schools that are publicly funded, privately run, and answering to their own standards. The New York Times calls it a Wild West for charter schools, and a post-apocalyptic hellscape for public schools. By design, there is no force of oversight ensuring that vouchers are only awarded for schools performing up to expectations. At the end of the equation are for-profit companies that continue to collect taxpayer moneys and enroll students without ever being forced to answer for their poor outcomes. Also at this end, students, families and communities standing helplessly by as their public schools sink further into dysfunction.
The Bill Before the House Today
Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump aren’t the only parties working to move forward with voucherism.
On January 23, 2017, Representative Steve King (R) of Iowa—who once said that “The argument that diversity is our strength has really never been backed up by logic”—introduced H.R. 610 to the House of Representatives. The proposed legislation is subtitled “To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.”
Referred to more concisely as the Choices in Education Act of 2017, the bill, in short:
“repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.
The bill establishes an education voucher program, through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies (LEAs) based on the number of eligible children within each LEA’s geographical area.”
To be eligible to receive a block grant, a state must: (1) comply with education voucher program requirements, and (2) make it lawful for parents of an eligible child to elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.
We’ll take a closer look at the applications of the law, but I do think it necessarily to quickly point out a totally unrelated and somewhat baffling dimension of the bill. Representative King has included—as part of a bill on School Choice—the elegantly-named No Hungry Kids Act.
Here, the bill repeals “a specified rule that established certain nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. (In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free.”
So let’s just be clear on this one. One goal of the bill is to prevent the federal government from requiring that cafeterias serve nutritious lunches to kids. The whole idea behind this little rider to the bill is to roll back certain regulations that restrict the maximum calories allowed in school lunches. This seems a rational response to the epidemics of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.
Anyway, the subject of this piece is School Choice, so we’ll hold back from a more thorough discussion of this frankly inexplicable deregulatory gesture. We’ll tackle this aspect of the bill in its own article because it seems like we probably should.
Back to school choice. Taken section by section, here are the major implications of the bill currently before the House:
- Scrap ESSA: The Every Students Succeed Act becomes law this year, which means that states have spent millions of dollars and thousands of working hours preparing for its implementation. The ESSA legislation was passed with bipartisan Congressional support under the Obama Administration. Its primary function is to replace the failed No Child Left Behind program with a strategy that places significantly more control back at the state and local levels while still leaving measures of federal accountability intact.
A leading provision of the new legislation would simply dismantle the ESSA. An article in Huffington Post observes that “by scrapping ESSA and replacing it with nothing at all, the feds would leave all sorts of mundane-but-necessary functions and decisions of schools in a state of chaos and mystery.”
- Block Grants:
Another major provision would transform the diverse range of funding priorities disbursed by the Department of Education into shapeless Block Grants, released to states in an amount proportionate to the number of students in a state, with the explicit and singular goal of funding voucher programs. In the absence of ESSA, it’s not entirely clear how other priorities—particularly public schools—would receive federal funding.
Under the new law, block grants would be reserved for those states that demonstrate a willingness to embrace vouchers. According to the bill, “To get the grant, states must show that they’ll spend the money on a voucher program” and demonstrate how they will make it lawful “to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the State”
This obviously invites a question about feasibility. Based on the language presented here, it would be incumbent upon the state of California, for instance, to ensure that a student living in Sacramento is legally entitled to use a voucher to attend a school in San Diego.
This section also requires all states to clear a legal path for homeschooling.
- Uniform Distribution of Grants:
The beauty of this plan is in its simplicity. The amount of money given to each state will be determined by simple arithmetic. Federal money is distributed across the states, with each being granted a uniform sum based on the total amount of that federal money divided by the number of eligible children.
What this means is that poor students and rich students alike will receive exactly the same amount of funding. So too would special needs children receive exactly the same sum as students in gifted or mainstream populations. This policy removes any nuance or specificity from the discussion of how best to fund students based on individual needs. In the face of mounting evidence that all students have different learning styles, sets of needs, and obstacles, this bill proposes to further deconstruct the capacity of states, districts and schools to tailor educational experiences according to these styles, needs and obstacles.
Will States Fall Into Line?
We discussed one of the biggest challenges to the Trump Administration’s desired overhaul of American education in Part II of Education Gets Trumped. In our discussion on Common Core, we noted that one of the biggest obstacles to its repeal is that it isn’t actually a federally-mandated education policy. It is one that has been adopted on a state by state basis.
According to Time Magazine, “While the U.S. spends more than $600 billion a year on public K-12 schools, less than 9% of that comes from the feds. That means any new education program, even if it originates on DeVos’ desk, will require state and local buy-in. Trump’s federal voucher plan, for example, would require not only that Congress allocate $20 billion to the program–a potentially heavy lift given that lawmakers have already promised tax cuts and a balanced budget. It would also require states to pony up another $110 billion. While voters have been willing to implement such programs for poor or disabled students, they have been wary of across-the-board school choice initiatives.”
But more than that, states are already deeply invested in the current policy orientation.
Obama’s Every Student Succeed Act goes into action this year. This legislation is a massive reform effort that replaces the widely-panned No Child Left Behind program with a policy that restores educational control at the state and local levels. States and districts have invested considerable resources into preparing for implementation. This alone makes any number of states reluctant to shift gears now, putting aside the wide variance of positions that states hold on the subjects of school choice and vouchers.
As for proof, look no further than the uphill climb that Betsy DeVos already faces. Though the new administration has not yet passed any educational legislation into law, DeVos has obviously made her priorities known to the public and to education leaders and administrators at the state level. This has not deterred state lawmakers from continuing to advance their obligations under ESSA.
As part of their compliance with the ESSA legislation, each state must submit a plan to the Department of Education outlining its intended approach to K-12 curriculum implementation. These individualized plans represent a move to balance central oversight with local control. Of the 10 plans submitted to Secretary DeVos as of mid-April 2017, only three—those for New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.—offered details on expanding voucher programs.
The other seven plans suggest a proclivity among states to continue their ongoing investment in public school improvements.
An article in U.S. News & World Report includes some ominous language, however, concerning the role that the Department of Education may or may not play in prodding states toward voucherism. U.S. News says that “While the Department’s decision will not hinge on whether the accountability proposals include school choice policies, DeVos said last month that she will use the approval process as an opportunity to ‘encourage’ states to adopt those policies.”
We’ll see just how aggressively this “encouraging” is done. The irony is pretty thick though. After campaigning on the oft-restated promise that authority would be returned to states and localities——and in the face of an ESSA agenda that does exactly that—Trump’s Secretary of Education seems wholly prepared to put the full weight of her federal office behind the expansion of voucher programs.
What that will look like is something of a mystery. States like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Illinois, and Massachusetts—all of which rank in U.S. News and World Report’s Top 20 U.S. States for Education have already submitted ESSA plans to the federal government that make little to no mention of enhanced school choice priorities. At present, it is unclear how the DeVos-led Department will handle these plans.
Will they be sent back for revisions? Rejected outright? Or simply accepted and consequently overwritten by new federal laws? And of course, in the event that H.R. 610 is passed into actual law, what will the elimination of the ESSA mean for these plans? Will they simply be scrapped and what will emerge in their place? What of the money, resources, and preparation that states have dedicated to developing these plans?
Well, at present, the deadline for ESSA plan submission is Sept. 18, 2017. But with few states falling in line behind the DeVos vision for “school choice,” what steps will the Department of Education take to see their agenda fulfilled?
What Choice Do We Have?
For a sense of what might actually occur in this area, it’s a good idea to reflect on the healthcare debacle that blew up in the face of the Trump administration in early 2017. Like the H.R. 610 bill, this was a healthcare reform bill that was geared predominantly toward dismantling existing structures without proposing anything realistic in their place.
In its various flaws, its lack of specificity, and an array of incompatible strategies that consequently alienated observers of all political stripes, the healthcare bill was bound for failure. The result today is an Affordable Care Act in desperate need of repair, a Republican-led leadership that desperately wants to repeal it, and a sense among Americans that neither is going to happen. In this vacuum, it’s reasonable to predict that the shortcomings of the ACA will only be allowed to metastasize without treatment.
We should consider H.R. 610 a similarly flawed piece of legislation that will likely produce a similar outcome. Public schools are in desperate need of repair. ESSA is actually a bipartisan policy that, while also imperfect, initiates many of these repairs. Like the Affordable Care Act, it has not yet been given the full space to realize its potential, nor to yield clear evidence of imperfections in need of repair. And yet, H.R. 610 would dismantle ESSA before it can even leave the starting block, suggesting nothing rational in its place. Like the ACA repeal bill, this one is also wildly incomplete, rife with incompatible ideas, and likely to satisfy nobody on either side of the aisle.
In other words, this legislation will also be dead in the water, though with considerably less fanfare than that which surrounded the healthcare fooferal. When this happens, the White House and Department of Education will likely step back into the fray with more medium-term objectives, those that might divert funding from public education to private, charter and alternative education in smaller chunks.
Indeed, even if Executive Orders and ill-conceived House bills don’t get the job done, Trump and DeVos have discussed some workarounds. According to the New York Times, they are currently “considering a number of ways to create a federal school choice program that would offer tax credit scholarships. That would allow individuals and corporations to make tax deductible donations to nonprofit networks of private schools, which then provide tuition scholarships to students. The administration is also considering allowing schools to directly access Title I funds from the Education Department that are used to help support low income students.”
In other words, rather than effectively dismantling ESSA and diverting funds from public schools with one giant paper-shredder, the idea will ultimately be to bleed them out with a million and one paper cuts.
Here’s the thing. A big sweeping bill like H.R. 610 will likely fail even without anything approaching the tempestuous gamesmanship and momentous failure of the healthcare bill. But, the Trump/DeVos version of school choice will ultimately become the path forward for our educational system, and all evidence suggests a path fraught with increased privatization and magnified inequality. When all is said and done, the policy that advocates call ‘school choice’ is underwritten by a deprivation of funding for public schools. This, more than anything, will become a reality, if not through sweeping legislation, through piecemeal dismantling of the educational administrative state.
What Do Teachers Think?
Of course, all of this stuff is a little wonky and Washingtonian. At the end of the day, teachers and students will have to live with the outcomes. Whether through sweeping legislation or incremental change, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos and the Republican-led houses of Congress will push forward an agenda of voucherism.
So how do teachers feel about the general thrust of federal policy?
Well, Detroit is probably a great place to start asking around. Science teacher Todd Bloch and Math/German teacher Zachary Sweet, both public school teachers in the Detroit system, explain in a Detroit News editorial that during her time there, DeVos systematically funneled money away from public schools and into a for-profit charter industry with no central oversight. The educators explain that “DeVos has fought to allow for the proliferation of these for-profit charters—which strip funding from traditional public schools—with little concern regarding these schools’ performance. She’s even fought against efforts to impose oversight on for-profit charter school quality.”
Detroit is just one case. Countless other major urban centers in the U.S. contend with the same creeping growth of for-profit charter schools and the consequential diversion of funds from already-struggling public schools. Such instances also underscore the important role that semantics play in selling the idea of “school choice” to the voting public. Teachers acknowledge that charter schools are not, on their face, a bad thing. But under the auspices of voucherism, charter schools are merely an appendage of educational privatization.
Like Detroit, the Philadelphia school district has seen a massive proliferation of for-profit charter schools over the last two decades. And like Detroit, Philadelphia’s public schools bear the scars of diverted funding.
We had an opportunity to speak with Janene Hasan, a K-8 STEM Specialist at Southwark Elementary School in South Philadelphia. Ms. Hasan works with students of all ages in a variety of STEM/Career and Technical Education (CTE) disciplines. She has seen firsthand just how damaging for-profit schools can be to public schools and the communities that surround them.
The most successful schools in Philadelphia are those that enjoy strong support, solidarity and involvement from the community around them. But, observed Ms. Hasan, with every charter school that opens its doors, the enveloping community splinters. Hasan explains that school choice is advertised as a superior market-based model of schools, “but what it really ends up doing is splitting resources. Instead of having all our resources going into public school, it splits our resources up. In Philadelphia, where you have a lot of charters schools, the parents who know how to work the privileged system get the best opportunities. Others get the leftovers.”
As a consequence, she said, school choice actually “divides communities. Instead of neighbors supporting each other and their school, you have parents competing for resources.”
These conditions not only compound the struggles faced by Philly’s most embattled public schools, but they often place students on unsustainable educational paths. Charter schools spring up over night, stewarded by for-profit Educational Management Companies. Like any division of a for-profit company, if a charter school isn’t making money, it could close without a moment’s notice. Philadelphia charter schools have been known to shutter their doors midyear, leaving students and families who jockeyed for coveted spots in these schools twisting in the wind.
Hasan points out that, in the absence of central regulatory authority, and in the face of economic, rather than educational, priorities, charter schools come and go all the time. Hasan notes that Southwark Elementary has operated continuously since 1909, serving multiple generations in a single community—generations that remain connected to and engaged with the public school today. By contrast, “Charter schools are all brand new and who knows if they’ll be open next year.”
Of course, charter schools aren’t the only implied alternative path under the “school choice” banner. Secretary DeVos has spoken passionately on behalf of private and religious schools, suggesting that “school choice” is a way for disadvantaged students to earn vouchers and consequently attend otherwise excellent and exclusive institutions.
Hasan sees it differently. There is a ceiling to the funding that each individual student can receive through a voucher. There is, of course, no ceiling to just how much a high-quality private or religious school might cost. As Hasan explains, “Vouchers are usually nowhere near enough so you would have to make up the difference. The disadvantaged still wouldn’t have access even with the voucher.”
In other words, vouchers generally amount to a discounted rate for those who already have the means for an excellent education. Place this discount alongside a charter sector run almost entirely by for-profit firms, and suddenly a picture emerges of an educational landscape littered with schools that have greater obligation to stockholders and executives than students and teachers.
Hasan explains that “I’m not opposed to charter schools. If done in a democratic way, you’ve given choice and innovation to people in the community who want an alternative to traditional schools. But the way the laws are applied, the people with the most money and corporate interests open charter schools, not grassroots groups of moms…”
In actuality, she explains, school choice is “Taking power away from people at local level and giving it to the corporate interests”
Public Schools Get Trumped
This may be the greatest irony in the set of policies that we see laid before us. Donald Trump’s populist campaign message included the pledge that “school choice” would promote freedom and control at the local level. But in case after case—Detroit and Philadelphia notable among them—the reality has been a shift toward ever-greater privatization. The vision that DeVos brings to the Department of Education looks eerily similar to the vision she brought to Detroit.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, state and local leaders are supposed to get their hands back on the reins. As currently advertised, “school choice” would hand the reins to an array of private interests.
Given the rhetoric and proposed legislation surrounding this topic, it is almost impossible to see a scenario where public schools don’t suffer. So certain is the diversion of funding that there doesn’t seem to be another realistic outcome.
Hasan articulates a feeling shared by many of her fellow educators on the current administration’s educational policy orientation. “To me,” she says, “it feels like a very personal attack on public education.”