Heads Up: Betsy DeVos’ Intentions For School Choice

Written by

Kate MacLean

1:00 pm

Photo Via CCA Kids

There has been much discussion in the past six months regarding the new administration’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her devotion to school choice. Combined with the President’s recently submitted budget proposal to Congress it seems time for a review on what the new administration is hoping to do with our public schools, why, and what some of the consequences might be to these measures.

It is important to know that the President is required by law to submit a federal budget proposal to Congress. The two branches of government will then hem and haw, and eventually (hopefully) come to an agreement. The President does not have ultimate say on the budget and his proposal is a wish list, not the final word. Still, it is imperative to understand where this administration hopes to take education. When President Trump submitted his budget proposal to Congress, he suggested a cut of $10.6 billion from existing education programs; a 13.6% reduction in the current education budget.

The cuts include: $1.2 billion from after-school programs, $27 million from arts education, another $27 million from literacy programs, $1 billion from interest subsidies for college loans for low income students, total elimination of the Loan Forgiveness Program, $250 million from preschool development grants. It would eliminate funding all together for Advanced Placement courses, mental health services, and anti-bullying initiatives. The list of cuts is exhaustive and can be viewed here.

With so many cuts, the President has room to spend and he has proposed an increased investment in school choice by $1.4 billion with the goal of an eventual increase to $20 billion, annually.

Currently about 80% of American school children attend public school, another 10% attend private, 6% to charter schools, and the remainder are homeschooled. Trump is not the first president to attempt a controversial revamping of the public school system. Obama had “Race to the Top” and Bush created “No Child Left Behind”. Presidents are historically obsessive on reforming public school.

The idea of school choice is to have state and federal funding “follow the student”. Parents and their children would be able to decide where they want to send their kids. If the local public school wasn’t working well, kids could look to other—better—public, private, or charter schools to enroll. Choice creates a Darwinian school system and exists already in many forms in many states. Advocates of school choice say it is democracy in its purest form; parents choosing to send their kids wherever they think is a best fit. It is argued that failing public schools could benefit from the competition and either do better, or close. Choice is said to benefit children of lower income families who would be able to escape a failing school; a privilege previously reserved for their wealthier counterparts.

There are two terms you will hear more and more of as this administration continues on their crusade for school choice: charter schools and vouchers.

There is no one more capable of describing anything as John Oliver. It is worth the 15 minutes to watch his overview on charter schools. In brief, charter schools are publicly-funded private schools. They take federal and state funds, but are not subject to federal and state education regulations on transparency or curriculum. The Nation called them “stunningly opaque”. They were originally founded as laboratories to try out new education tools. This has since all but disappeared from their mission. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have charter schools already in place.

Vouchers are currently used in 15 states and the District of Columbia to provide funding for students to go to a private or religious school. Some state voucher programs have been shuttered for violating the separation of church and state. This separation is ensured in most state constitutions under the Blaine Amendment which prohibits public money from being used “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, denomination or religion”. The Supreme Court is set to make a decision this year on this very topic.

While the idea of sending your child to a school of your choice sounds appealing, there are nuances to this supposed ideal that are important to understand. Charter and private schools are not required (unlike their public counterparts) to accept all children. This can and will lead to discrimination. Particularly the danger lies with discrimination for special needs students. Private and religious schools are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is argued that school choice will worsen problems of segregation. Many families will want to send their kids to schools where the children look like their own; black kids in one school, white kids in another and so forth. The benefits to integrated schools are well-documented, and yet it has been 60+ years since Brown v. Board of Education and some parents—and lawmakers—are still fighting the facts.

With funds diverting to private, religious, and charter schools, public schools will struggle with betterment resulting in the closure of many. Communities fear the potential loss of their local school and the ripple effects this loss will create. The lack of accountability and oversight that private institutions enjoy is yet another cause for concern. Tax dollars will be funneled to schools that are not required to answer to the taxpayers.

In all, the country’s most vulnerable children could see a devastating assault on their public schools with the rise of Choice. The results of which would take the country back to an era more closely resembling the 1950s where segregation was the law and the education playing field was appallingly uneven.

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