The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has invited fresh scrutiny of voucher programs. As reasonably informed people already know, DeVos is an aggressive proponent of vouchers and school choice. Her advocacy is particularly troubling because of her deep commitment to religion and shallow commitment to the Constitution. She thinks education should advance God’s Kingdom. She is on record as seeking to end public education as a central institution of our republic and replace it with a system of parental, preferably religious, choice. Rejoice and replace!
This fresh scrutiny has revealed research proving that vouchers don’t do anything useful. Even dependably conservative folks like those at the Fordham Institute and Stanford University have acknowledged that voucher recipients don’t make more progress. In fact, voucher recipients apparently experience a precipitous decline in test performance. Since I believe test performance is a lousy measurement, I take this good news with a grain of cynicism, but it’s important to note that vouchers don’t even work to advance the limited intentions of education reform.
Other criticism of vouchers is already well known. 80% of vouchers are used to divert public funds to private, religious schools. They further segregate schools and neighborhoods. They encourage attendance at schools that are unregulated and unaccountable. They tantalize parents with the false promise, “You should be able to choose a school just like the wealthy folks do!” Right. Try marching with your voucher to the school where Barron Trump goes every day. Tuition is nearly $50K per year and there are limited seats available even for those able to pay.
These criticisms, while accurate, fail to note the most dangerous aspect of vouchers and choice. The incentives and disincentives implicit in voucher programs are certain to end public education as we know it and dramatically exacerbate the already glaring inequities in society.
Vouchers are always offered in amounts less than the mean or median cost of educating a child in the traditional public system. This is true whether the voucher is offered through a federal block grant, through a contrived “charitable” foundation or by state or local government. This is an appealing incentive to cash-strapped communities, where property tax burdens are often oppressive. “Here’s your voucher, now go buy education in the competitive marketplace.” It is equivalent to one of the conservative approaches to health care. “Here’s your voucher (or tax credit), now go buy health care in the competitive marketplace.” Such programs reduce cost and relieve the government of responsibility. Their surface appeal is the deceptive promise of free choice.
Yes, there is a market dynamic at work. Schools are already being designed to provide services aligned with the reduced value of a voucher and to generate profit at the same time. Since a voucher has lower purchasing power, these schools adopt a different economic model: Larger class sizes, lower teacher pay, fewer arts or science programs and limited physical facilities – just to name a few shortcomings. These are the schools, and the only schools, that will be available to poor and working class families. School choice is already leading to this outcome by allowing families to take their “dollars” to charter schools, leaving the district school to manage with fewer resources.
Of course families of means will not accept the sparse programs and assembly line pedagogy driven by this economic pressure. These families can and will significantly augment their vouchers with personal resources and the marketplace will provide options for them. I know. My private school is already an option for them – average class size of 14, rich arts and athletic programming and lots of other benefits that privilege confers.
The logical outcome of vouchers and privatization is crystal clear. Education will rapidly become a commodity where quality is precisely correlated with ability to pay. This has been de facto for many years, as school funding has never been equalized to account for economic injustice. But this move toward vouchers and privatization will move education injustice from de facto to de jure, encoding inequity into the law. Again, it is equivalent to health care proposals that offer bare bones coverage to poor folks and offer increasing levels of care to those with means.
We must not lose sight of what is really going on. Beneath the noise of education reform - the constant arguing about outcomes or pedagogy, the glitzy banners of charter schools and constant union and teacher bashing – there is something very basic happening in our society. It is the accelerated abandoning of the social contract. It is the repudiation of compassionate collectivism in favor of the mythology of meritocracy and rugged individualism. Perhaps in these two issues – health care and education – we find the most fundamental contrast.
Many citizens believe in the universal and equal rights of all Americans to education and health care. These rights are unambiguous and should not be diluted by political rhetoric or denied by government policy.
Trump, DeVos and the majority of conservatives believe in a fierce philosophy where we are largely on our own, get what we deserve and deserve what we get. Within that barren philosophy, a voucher for schooling or a small allowance for a catastrophic health care policy is more than generous enough. After that, fend for yourself.
There are many issues where the pendulum may swing back and forth as political winds change direction. Education is not one of them. If we lose the magnificent public education system that has distinguished America and offered opportunity to all, however imperfectly, I see no way we will ever get it back.