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Three big problems with school ‘choice’ that supporters don’t like to talk about

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, joined by President Trump, speaks at a school-choice event at the White House on May 3. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been quite clear that expanding school choice is their top education priority. On Wednesday at a White House event, Trump said, according to a White House transcript:

During my campaign for president, I promised to fight for school choice — very important. It was featured in my joint address to Congress. And today, I’m calling on all lawmakers to work with us to help extend school choice to millions more children all across the United States of America, including millions of low-income Hispanic and African American children who deserve the same chance as every other child in America to live out their dreams and fill up their hearts and be educated at the top, top level.

But one thing Trump, DeVos and many other choice advocates don’t talk publicly about are the negative consequences that have come with the implementation of school choice in states throughout the country. We hear a lot from them about how wonderful it is that some families have some educational choices beyond their neighborhood public schools — the public schools DeVos has flatly called a “dead end” — but we don’t hear about the financial scandals or the lack of transparency or public accountability that have resulted in many places.

If these were outliers, it would be understandable, but they aren’t. The charter and voucher/voucher-like sectors in some states are so broadly flawed that some choice supporters have recognized it.  In 2015, charter-school researcher Margaret “Macke” Raymond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University said this to people from Ohio about their troubled charter sector: “Be very glad that you have Nevada, so you are not the worst.” Raymond had previously issued a report saying Ohio charter-school students were learning 36 fewer days of math and 14 fewer days of reading than traditional public school students.

Let it be said that, yes, there are some wonderful charter schools. And yes, there are lousy traditional public schools. That isn’t open for debate. The question is whether the remedies pursued as part of school reform efforts are really helping the problem or hurting.

Here is a piece on some of the negative consequences of school choice that supporters don’t like to talk about. It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. She has been chronicling problems with corporate school reform efforts for years on this blog. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013 the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year.

By Carol Burris

During my 15 years as a high school principal, I learned the importance of considering the implications of every policy decision I made. The latest “great idea,” pursued with the best of intentions, can have negative consequences down the line. And when those “great ideas” become awful ideas they can be exceedingly difficult to undo.

Which brings us to school choice.

Not all school choice is problematic. Public school choice programs, if carefully managed, can serve students well and/or promote a social good, such as racial or socioeconomic integration. Examples are schools that have a vocational component, alternative schools for dropouts, or dual-language public schools nested in an immigrant community.

Privatized school choice, in contrast, is quite different. Privatized school choice is the public financing of private alternatives to public schools. Examples include charters run by corporate boards, private schools funded by vouchers, online learning charters and publicly subsidized home schooling. Then there are the disguised voucher plans such as Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, which give taxpayer money on debit cards to parents with little oversight as to how it is spent.

Privatized school choice, in its various forms, has been rapidly gaining ground in many of our states.  The thinly veiled agenda of privatized choice is the destruction of public schools, which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her allies refer to as “government schools.”

School privatizers appeal to our impulses as consumers. They argue that competition results in improvement, even though the preponderance of evidence shows that charters, online learning and vouchers have not improved student learning and in many cases have dramatically decreased student success.

Nevertheless, school privatizers carefully orchestrate and coordinate efforts to install choice systems before the public understands the negative long-term consequences that will result.

What follow are three consequences for taxpayers based on what we know from the programs that already exist in various states.

1. Privatized school choice will inevitably reduce funding for your local neighborhood public schools

The ultimate goal of school choice advocates is funding portability that is sometimes called “backpack funding” to increase its appeal. Taxpayer money follows the student to the public school, private school, home school or charter school of her choice. Its proponents argue that it will not hurt the children or taxpayers of the local public school, because when the student leaves, school costs will be reduced equal to the money in the backpack.

That argument is false. Here is an analogy that explains why.

Consider what happens when a family sends a child off to college. The “upkeep” (room and board) follows the child. According to the College Board, such costs range from $10,440 at four-year public colleges to $11,890 at private colleges.

Family budgets, however, do not go down $11,000 when a son or daughter goes off to school. Mom and Dad still have to pay the mortgage, make the car payments and heat the house. The food bill may go down some, but not by nearly $1,000 a month. And keep in mind that the average length of two college semesters is only 30 weeks a year, making the real cost about $1,500 a month.

The same problem occurs when a student, or group of students, leaves your local public school. Superintendents refer to the difference between the funding that leaves and the resultant savings as “stranded costs.” And those stranded costs add up.

The Bethlehem school district in Pennsylvania budgets $26 million of its annual budget to put in “the backpacks” of students who leave to go to brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools. According to district superintendent Joe Roy, if those students and their funding returned, it would cost the district only $6 million to educate them. That means the “stranded cost” of charter-school choice to the taxpayers of Bethlehem is $20 million.

A recent study by Innovation Ohio demonstrated the loss of millions of dollars intended for the Van Wert County local public schools (recently visited by DeVos) that instead flowed to charter schools. As the study’s authors explained, the burden for financing charter schools has shifted to local taxpayers, resulting in steep increases in taxes.

As charter schools and voucher programs expand, the public school system has to reduce services, enrichment programs and sports, or it has to raise local taxes, or both. This negatively impacts the community at large and has a negative effect on home values.

 2. Direct and disguised vouchers to private schools and other public school alternatives start small and then expand, increasing the burden on taxpayers

During the 2014-2015 school year, 5.9 million students were enrolled in private schools. The average tuition for private schools is about $10,000 a year. If taxpayers were to assume the costs of educating students whose parents prefer private schools, the bill would be staggering — $59 billion a year.

We have learned that in states that have vouchers (or disguised vouchers such as ESAs or education tax credits), the program starts small and expands over time, eventually subsidizing private-school tuition for families who can well afford it. Indiana’s voucher program began small and then rapidly expanded to include middle-class students who never attended a public school. After the recent expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the right-wing Goldwater Institute sent an email to its donors promising to remove all caps. For those unfamiliar with the program, ESAs give parents 90 percent of public education costs on a debit card in exchange for not sending their child to a public school.

Another Arizona voucher program, the education tax-credit program, is no more than a gift of public funds masquerading as a “good cause.” Contributors get a dollar-for-dollar credit for making their donation. Because every dollar given is returned to the donor, all of the state’s taxpayers are footing the bill for the vouchers. It has been likened to a money-laundering scheme.

A similar program in South Carolina can be manipulated so that high-income taxpayers can make money by getting all of their money back and then receiving federal deductions. A wealth management firm in Virginia explains how you can use these tax credits to make money. The wealthier you are, the more you can make.

Seventeen states have tax-credit subsidies, and five have ESA programs. To see where these programs and other privatization programs are, go to the Network for Public Education’s school privatization map that you can find here.

3. Additional administrative costs coupled with a lack of transparency waste taxpayer dollars and open the door to excessive legal and fraudulent personal gain

Whether it is the $600,000-a-year salary taken by Eva Moskowitz for running a small charter chain in New York, the $400,000 sign-on bonus given to the chief executive of the for-profit online learning company K-12, or the 68 percent of the taxpayer funds given to Basis charters that is shifted to its for-profit organization to manage its schools (according to a 2015 independent audit), there is no mechanism for pushback when charter administrative costs get out of control. That is because there is no elected board that is held accountable for how taxpayer dollars are spent.

And so cushy administrative jobs and overhead proliferate. In New Jersey, charter-school administrative expenses are nearly $1,000 per pupil higher than those of district schools, with twice as many budgeted dollars going to management. A study of public and charter administrative costs in Pennsylvania found that charters spend double what public schools spend. The same pattern is repeated in nearly every state.

Duplicative and excessive administration costs are not just associated with charters. To cover the costs of the money transfers through voucher tax credits, Arizona allows private administrators to skim 10 percent off for administration. One of those administrators is Arizona Senate President Steven Yarbrough, who profits in both salary and real estate dealings from one of the state’s voucher administration groups, the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization.

A lack of transparency not only allows exorbitant administrative costs to be veiled; it makes fraud and abuse far more difficult to detect. Every week brings news reports of scandals involving charter schools. There were six reports in a recent one-week period, including a charter principal engaged in credit card fraud, a charter management company that left a school stranded midyear, and the Celerity charter chain, which is under investigation by the FBI for years of questionable spending and conflicts of interest. ProgressOhio recently recounted dozens of charter-school scandal reports that have taken place in that state from 2013 to 2015, describing their list as incomplete.

And the ESA voucher programs are also ripe for abuse. The Arizona ESA program, the oldest in the nation, has been associated with numerous cases of fraud.

You can read more about the fraud, waste and problems associated with school privatization in the Network for Public Education’s latest report, “School Privatization Explained,” which you can find here.

It is time for a sensible review of school choice policies. It is imperative that we look not only at the short-term appeal of choice but the long-term effects of privatized school choice.

Since the establishment of America’s first public school in 1635, our country has assumed educating children is a public endeavor to be shared by all citizens. The common school movement, established by Horace Mann in the early 1800s, was designed to support our unique American culture and break down the walls between immigrants and natives, rich and poor, and children of all cultures and religions. We supported education with our tax dollars not to give individual children advantage but to build a nation by teaching our children about the blessings of democracy in a publicly governed community school.

When we turn our backs on our public schools, we turn our backs on our most profound American values. We are not embracing conservatism; we are embracing consumerism. It is as simple and sad as that.