Since the fractious appointment and confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, discussions of American education in K-12 schools have been under-girded with the idea of choice. It played into the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 23, when DeVos outlined her place and perspective in the Trump administration; her role in the post, she explained, deals with placing “power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.” The power that DeVos seeks to bestow is related to what has been a banner for her in criticizing education in the United States: choice through the use of school vouchers.
Drawn from taxpayers’ funds, vouchers like the kind DeVos is backing have been described as coupons or scholarships. Under a voucher system, students retain the tax-paid funds for education that benefit those enrolled in state public schools; however, families would receive the option of deciding how to allocate these funds. Rather than feeling locked into a particular school district, those under a voucher system could opt to send their child to a private or parochial school with the money that would otherwise have supplied a public education. In this way, as DeVos and the voucher system’s proponents have held, students and those who care for them are entitled to a thing of power: choice when it comes to where and how a child is educated. While attempting to involve parents and families in making decisions related to education is by no means negative, it is our view that the voucher system touted by DeVos and Trump is not without its pitfalls. The hazards of school-choice rhetoric are real, especially for low-income communities and those in failing school districts. Directing pupils away and diverting funding from public institutions does not deal with the larger need for education reform to bastion them. Rather, it supplies a bandage of sorts on an individual basis—one that has not been proven to outperform traditional public schools.
Rather than focusing on replenishing school districts that have been weakened through a lack of resources, a voucher system like that promoted by DeVos encourages one to jump ship and select another institution—without considering that for some students, especially those in low-income or rural areas, there is no platform to land on. A scarcity of schools in these places eliminates the idea of school choice for students, while also failing to support the needs of their existing public schools.
While the thought of choice might be enchanting, it does not well take into account the context of these students. Indeed, by calling one institution a thing of quality while dismissing the other as being in disrepair, plans for a national voucher program ignore something else. According to a Feb. 28 report from the Economic Policy Institute, students who have received state-funded vouchers to private or charter schools have not been shown to outpace their public school contemporaries in standardized testing.
“Together,” DeVos concluded in her speech at CPAC, “we can make American education great again. The next generation deserves no less.” She is correct that no student deserves the short shrift. However, the greatness of education in America cannot be gathered by stripping schools and communities of their strengths for an idea of choice.