Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration plan to spend billions of public dollars to encourage parents to send their children to schools that may be for-profit, may discriminate in their admissions policies and are not subject to monitoring of their performance or practices.
Many education professionals and researchers believe that this emphasis on what the administration calls “school choice” threatens our entire system of public education. This is because such programs redirect public money to privately operated schools, a move that may cripple the ability of public schools to serve the full range of student needs and interests.
The fundamental problem is that when a public school loses a percentage of its students and funding to private schools, it’s impossible to reduce its costs by a similar percentage. The school still has to pay much the same utility, maintenance, transportation, administrative, custodial and food service costs. Even teaching staff costs are unlikely to drop because there has to be a teacher in the classroom whether there are 25 or 10 students in attendance. The result is that public schools are often forced to cut support staff or programs such as art and music.
Research shows that the fiscal impact of private school choice policies on public schools can be enormous:
– A study of Buffalo, NY, schools found that private charter schools programs had cost that district $57.3 million in a single year.
– In Nashville, TN, a study by the research firm MGT of America estimates that the growth of private charter schools has meant more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period.
– In Los Angeles, another MGT study calculated that the city’s public schools had lost $591 million due to declining enrollment attributable to students who leave and go to private charter schools.
To make matters worse, DeVos wants to allow tax money to flow to private schools through vouchers, government-funded scholarships or corporate tax credits. Voucher programs are especially threatening to public schools because more children will leave if they are subsidized to attend any private or religious or virtual school their families favor.
But what about results? Do voucher students really improve their performance when they escape the “evils” of the public school system? Some recent studies of the limited voucher programs currently in operation—studies that compare the performance of voucher students and similar students who remained in public schools—suggest the opposite. The performance of voucher students declined when they left their public schools.
Highly regarded education researcher Mark Dynarski, of the Brookings Institution, summarizes the most recent studies:
– Indiana, 2015: “In mathematics,” the researchers found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also found no improvement in reading.
– Louisiana, 2016: Researchers found large negative results in both reading and math for students using vouchers to transfer to private schools. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year in the private school. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.
– Ohio, 2016: A study funded and conducted by proponents of school choice found that “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Results were worse in math.
Dynarski concludes, “A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction.” And he offers a possible explanation: “our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate.”
So DeVos’s plans threaten to undermine public school financing, shift funds to unregulated for-profit schools and lower student performance.It’s time to let our elected representatives know how we feel about defunding and destabilizing America’s public education system.