Freedom to Choose, Freedom to Lose: Why School Choice Has Little to Offer America’s Students

From picket protests in Alaska to student walkouts in Oregon, protesters expressed fierce resistance to the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The intensity of the opposition pushed two Republican senators to break rank, leading to a 50-50 split on her confirmation vote and forcing Vice President Mike Pence to cast an unprecedented tie-breaking vote on her behalf. A philanthropist and the former chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has been a career advocate for a controversial education model: school choice. School choice is an umbrella term for the broad philosophy that students should not have to attend their geographically assigned public school, giving parents more freedom in selecting schools. It can encompass policies such as vouchers to subsidize tuition at private and charter schools to serve as alternatives to traditional public education. DeVos’ nomination represents a push towards more extreme school choice policies.

Skeptical liberals believe that some school choice models such as vouchers are just ways to take money out of the public school system and use it to subsidize private education. But the notion of school choice itself is not inherently problematic. Forty-six states and Washington, DC operate on some variant of public school choice, and both Republicans and Democrats (including former President Barack Obama) have embraced the extension of charter schools. But as debate around school choice, charter extension, and voucher systems continues, policymakers and the public must be wary. Inducing market competition in the school system has theoretical advantages, but in practice is liable to exacerbate socioeconomic divisions and imperil the quality of our nation’s public schools.

School choice policies first began to gain traction in the 1980s, as the declining quality of public schools attracted national attention. In 1983, the US Department of Education published a report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education. Influenced by the fiscal conservatism of the Reagan years, the report energized support for school vouchers. Education theorists envisioned an ecosystem of public, private, and charter schools, all competing for students – the “marketplace consumers.” Competition would push schools to reform themselves efficiently to attract students and remain viable.

But examining DeVos’ decades of work in Michigan schools tells a different story. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press has tracked her over the years and describes how the changes DeVos has effected through her lobbying for school choice have left many students behind. “Kids who depend on Detroit’s problematic public transit are too far away from the state’s top-performing districts – and don’t participate in the Schools of Choice program, ” he writes. Families now have a multitude of theoretical choices, but “what remains in short supply is quality.”

Despite those dismal outcomes, DeVos remains a proponent of school choice, believing that to “meet the needs of every child,” the US must move away from the “one-size-fits-all model of learning.” However, school choice will not serve all children equally: It will entrench rather than assuage socioeconomic disparities in schools of all levels. Despite theories that school choice can counteract inequality by extending to others options available to students in wealthy neighborhoods, divisions of race and class make the supposed even playing field anything but even. Wealthier parents, unlike poorer ones, have the time to dedicate to researching school options, and have access to institutional knowledge about the best available options. Most school choice proposals do little to combat these problems.

Divisions of race and class make the supposed even playing field anything but even.

Still, many make the argument that no harm comes from giving disadvantaged students vouchers to let them to attend schools with more resources. Indeed, the successful outcomes of voucher recipients have been well documented. A January report by the conservative Heartland Institute shows that when parents can choose the school their child attends, dropout rates decrease, test scores rise, and racial and economic achievement gaps narrow. However, these statistics account for only those lucky enough to be selected to attend top schools through lotteries – the rest of public school students are not accounted for. Donald Trump’s campaign proposal included providing the poorest fifth of students each with $12,000 vouchers – a splendid idea in principle. The only problem was that it relies on the dubious assumption that states would cough up a modest sum of $110 billion – 20 percent of their collective K-12 budget – to complement the $20 billion he proposed allocating from the federal budget.

The reality of widespread voucher programs has grim financial implications. Contrary to the claims of some conservatives that opposition to vouchers comes from the entrenched interests of teachers’ unions, the very real problem exists that schools have significant fixed costs that do not vanish when students decide to take their voucher money elsewhere. According to the National Education Statistics Center, the average per-pupil spending on public education for 2012 to 2013 was $12,296 with $6,693 of that sum spent on instruction. To keep schools funded well enough to cover their non-instruction related operating costs, voucher values could not rise above the sum spent on instruction. Though exact figures would vary by district, this would restrict vouchers to below $6,693, which would not be enough to make private school affordable for the vast majority of families.

Existing voucher systems have failed to improve outcomes when enacted widely. Consistent with the Heartland Institute findings, winners of charter school lotteries in DC had a higher graduation rate, but in cities where voucher use was more widespread – such as Dayton and Toledo in Ohio – there was no effect on students’ performance. Even the pro-voucher Fordham Foundation could not arrive at a sanguine assessment of Ohio’s program. “We did not expect – or, frankly, wish – to see these negative effects for voucher participants,” the researchers wrote.

These results should be no surprise: Vouchers do not effectively help the students they try to. Even though school choice supposedly gives students access to a range of school options, competition between schools inadvertently closes off many high-quality options to the students who need them most. A principal of a New Orleans charter school admitted that during years of high-stakes testing, he would rather his school go under-enrolled than admit the “wrong” type of student and risk lowering their overall test scores. Because choice programs have the capacity to formally and informally select students, the pressures from competition can drive top schools to exclude populations of lower-achieving students – the very people American education is already failing.

Furthermore, the schools themselves rarely make substantive improvements, and instead focus on makeovers that appeal to parents. In a survey of New Orleans schools, a city where 84 percent of students attend charter schools, 25 out of 30 schools reported heavy efforts to market programs and services they already offered – by far the most common response to market competition. Many schools resorted to cosmetic improvements without making changes in any other categories, investing money and effort only in self-promotion.

Efficacy aside, school choice programs also raise ethical issues by making it possible for donors to shape schools. Charter schools receive less state funding than traditional public schools and many of them rely heavily on philanthropic grants from donors. In a voucher system, school funding becomes even less secure because it is dependent on student enrollment. Thus, it is likely that, for many schools, philanthropic support would be even more necessary. While storied organizations such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have helped fund these schools, opponents have warned that Betsy Devos and the Trump administration intend to encourage academic donors in promoting Christian fundamentalism. While such accusations are on the fringes, the possibility that vouchers imperil secularism has already sparked legal challenges. In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a voucher program in the state’s third largest district because it channeled public funds to religious schools. These questions of constitutionality will likely soon end up in front of the Supreme Court, which has already struggled to develop a workable test for whether vouchers violate the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of a state religion. Whether or not the Trump administration’s intentions are pure, voucher systems open our nation’s schools to influence from philanthropy and religious institutions.

By touting an agenda of voucher programs for American schools, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos make the clear statement that something has to change within our nation’s school system. Their pipe dream voucher system may not be the best change for America’s youth, but, if nothing else it could spur meaningful dialogue about how to build an effective, accessible, and internationally-competitive school system in our country. Only once that conversation happens can the debate start to move past choice and toward quality.