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What ‘school choice’ means in the era of Trump and DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 19. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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If President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made one thing clear when it comes to education policy, it is this: Their priority is expanding “school choice.” What is that, exactly?

This is a primer about the school choice movement, which supporters say seeks to expand alternatives to traditional public schools for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods and to give parents a choice in their children’s education.

Critics argue that using public funds to support choice schools is undermining the traditional public system, which educates the majority of America’s school-age children, and that it is ultimately aimed at privatizing the most important civic institution in the country.

Whatever the intent, the Trump administration is taking the movement into a new era, elevating it to the center of the national education policy debate after years, under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, of school “accountability” taking center stage.

DeVos’s Education Department is planning to spend an unprecedented amount of public money — well over $1 billion — to expand school choice in the 2018 proposed budget, and it is said to be considering other ways to promote choice. The secretary has not been shy about expressing disdain for the traditional public school system by calling it a “dead end” and a “monopoly.”

Trump, too, has disparaged traditional public schools, calling them, in his inaugural speech, part of the “American carnage.” His pro-school-choice bent was clear when he welcomed a group of 10 teachers and parents to the White House in February: two invitees were from traditional public schools, one was from a public school that specializes in special education, three came from private schools, two were home-schoolers, one was from a charter school, and one was from a dropout-prevention program.

More than 80 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend traditional public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses the latest data available, about 10 percent of schoolchildren in the United States go to private schools, about 5 percent attend charter schools, according to 2013-14 data, and a little more than 3 percent are home-schooled, according to 2012 data, the latest available. Charter associations say new data shows that 6 percent of schoolchildren now attend charters.

To DeVos, the U.S. public school system is a ‘dead end’

There are numerous tentacles to the school choice movement: charter schools, vouchers, tax-credit programs, education scholarship accounts, home schooling, online schools. And that’s not all.

The choice movement is not monolithic; all choice supporters don’t support all forms of choice and all do not have the same motivations behind their advocacy. Choice critics are not monolithic; some, for example, accept some charter schools but not other forms of choice. A key fissure is between the free-market believers who want very little regulation — who are mostly libertarians and Republicans, including DeVos — and those who believe in heavier regulation and more accountability, and tend to prefer charters over vouchers. The latter includes some Republicans and many Democrats, including former president Barack Obama.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has been an important advocate for school choice for decades, spending her time and a great deal of money to promote choice options in her home state of Michigan, where she successfully helped expand charter schools but failed to get a voucher program passed. She has created and run organizations that have lobbied for school choice around the country.

Trump: Public schools are part of ‘American carnage’

The choice movement has been around for decades, though it has changed over time, gaining momentum in the last 15 years. Most Republicans are big choice supporters, but many Democrats are, too — though they all don’t support the same choice initiatives. The Democratic Obama administration was a big charter supporter and spent billions of federal dollars to incentivize states to open more of them, but it opposed vouchers. There isn’t a choice option that Trump or DeVos have said they oppose.

If you are confused by all of this, you are certainly not alone; the differences between programs are sometimes complicated and confounding. Here are arguments frequently heard for and against choice:

Choice supporters say:

  • All parents should have a right to choose the school that their students attend.
  • Many traditional public schools, especially in cities, are failing kids, especially students of color, and can’t be saved.
  • Poor and middle-class parents should have the right to escape failing neighborhood schools in the same way that wealthy people do by paying for private schools.
  • Public schools should be run as if they are businesses, subject to competition from other educational institutions and subject to closure if they don’t work.

Critics of school choice say:

  • The public education system cannot be run like a business because students are not products.
  • Traditional schools must accept all children but choice options don’t, and traditional systems are hurt when financial resources are diverted from districts that are chronically underfunded.
  • Choice schools are not accountable to the public the same way traditional public schools are and oversight is lax in many states, leading to financial and other scandals.
  • Some choice options violate the fundamental constitutional principle of separation between church and state.

It is worth noting that school choice supporters like to include magnet schools and other choice initiatives within the traditional public school systems as part of the choice movement, but critics don’t. They say that magnets — schools with specialized courses and/or curriculum — are part of a democratically governed system; if students who apply aren’t accepted, the traditional system still must enroll and educate them. That is different from publicly funded charter schools, for example, which are allowed to operate like private schools and don’t have the same obligation as traditional public schools to serve all students.

Here’s more about charter schools and other forms of school choice:

Charter schools

Charters are schools that are publicly funded but independently operated. That means they aren’t part of the traditional school system in which they are located, and they are not subject to the same rules of transparency that apply to traditional public schools. There are individual charters as well as charter networks.

Charter schools can be run by nonprofit and for-profit entities, depending on the laws of each state that dictate how charters are created, operate and expand. There are varying degrees of accountability to the public in different states; some charter sectors have become mired in financial scandal because the charter laws have virtually no oversight. For example, an investigation into Ohio charter schools by the Akron Beacon Journal found in 2015 that charters in the state appeared to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.”

Today there are more than 6,900 charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling some 3 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. California has the most charter schools and students enrolled in them.

Charter schools started some 25 years ago and were originally created to be operated outside the traditional public school districts to give them flexibility to try out new things and serve as laboratories. The idea was that they would provide competition to traditional schools and prompt them to improve.

That didn’t happen, and today many charter supporters don’t talk about the “laboratory” idea but instead view charters as an option parents should have. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan’s Education Policy Initiative, for example, found that Michigan’s charter schools follow similar practices as the traditional public schools that their students would otherwise attend.

“No excuses” charters feature tightly controlled environments and strict disciplinary codes and have been accused of trying to mold submissive students.

What are the costs of ‘no excuses’ charter schools on students of color?

Some charter schools outperform the traditional public schools and districts near them, though the largest studies show that that is not the case on average, according to standardized test scores, the metric that school reformers have long cited as the primary accountability measure.

Because many charters operate differently from traditional public schools — counseling out students who can’t keep up with the school’s program, for example, or educating fewer students with severe disabilities than do traditional public schools — some critics say the outcomes cannot properly be compared.

Why charter schools get public education advocates so angry

Vouchers, tax credits and educational savings accounts

These are programs that use public funds, in one form or another, for families to pay tuition and other educational expenses at private and religious schools. There are important differences in how they work.


Under these programs, families can receive government funding, at differing amounts according to the program, in the form of a voucher that can be used to pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

There are 25 voucher programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia, according to EdChoice, a pro-school-choice organization. Some voucher programs have been struck down in state courts as unconstitutional for violating the separation of church and state. For example, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a voucher program in the state’s third-largest school district in 2015, finding the program unconstitutional because it channeled public funds to religious schools.

But the Supreme Court is considering a case now, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (previously v. Pauley), that challenges what is known as a Blaine Amendment — a provision in most state constitutions that forbids using public money “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination or religion.” If the court were to strike it down, the door would be open for more school voucher programs around the country. If it does not do so in this case, it is likely to get another opportunity in its next session.

There is one federally funded program in the country, the one in Washington, D.C. A study released in April by the U.S. Education Department found that students in the program performed worse on standardized tests within a year after entering D.C. private schools than peers who did not participate. The study followed several other recent studies of state-funded vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio that suggested negative effects on student achievement.

Nation’s only federally funded voucher program has negative effect on student achievement, study finds

A December Washington Post story about Indiana’s voucher program, one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing now serving more than 32,000 children, reported that five years after state lawmakers created the program, promoting it as a way to offer children from poor and lower-middle-class families an escape from failing public schools, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients had never attended Indiana public schools and that many vouchers are going to wealthier families.

Tax credit “scholarship” programs

These offer individuals and corporations tax benefits for donating to organizations that provide “scholarship” money for students to attend private and religious schools. They were created as a way around direct state funding of religious school tuition. EdChoice says there are now 21 tax-credit scholarship programs in 17 states. In some states, donors can claim state as well as federal tax benefits for the same donation.

An April 2017 Washington Post story about Florida’s tax credit program, the largest in the country, which pays private and religious school tuition for nearly 100,000 students, said that there was “scant evidence” that students in the program fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And it noted there are no consequences for private schools that do not meet minimal performance standards, even though Florida has been at the forefront of the movement to hold traditional public schools “accountable” for academic results.

The Trump administration is believed to be considering adding an education tax credit program in any revision of the tax code.

Educational savings accounts

These are personal accounts created by a state for parents to use for a range of educational costs — including private school tuition and fees as well as private tutoring — with state education funds. EdChoice says five states offer such funds, which often are given to families by debit card.

The trend in educational saving accounts is that there is no means test, which is part of a larger shift in some parts of the school choice movement from advocating for choice being for low-income students to escape failing traditional public schools to choice being for all families. This is the vision that conservatives, such as DeVos, and her longtime ally, former Republican Florida governor Jeb Bush, want to see become reality across the United States. Critics say that a publicly funded school system that is open to all students cannot function without stable budgets that would be disrupted by such a choice program.

In Nevada, any parent can pull a child from a publicly funded school and use tax dollars for whatever form of education they want, including private and religious schooling or home schooling. The law, passed in 2015 by the Republican-controlled legislature with help from Bush’s education foundation, is seen by conservatives as the height of school choice.

The ultimate in school choice or school as a commodity?

And in Arizona, all families with children in school will potentially be able to access public money for private education under a new bill that created one of the nation’s most expansive school-choice programs.

In Arizona, all children can potentially access public dollars for private education

Home schooling

This is exactly what it sounds like — children are educated at home, usually through a program approved by the state.  The Education Department reported that about 1.8 million U.S. children were home-schooled in 2012, more than double the number that were home-schooled in 1999, when the federal government began gathering data on national home-schooling trends.

The estimated number of home-schooled children represents 3.4 percent of the U.S. student population between the ages of 5 and 17, the National Center for Education Statistics reported. Most home-schoolers were white and living above the poverty line in 2012, with nearly half of home-schooled children having parents who were college graduates.

Virtual schools

These, too, are just what they sound like — schools that are online. There are private and publicly funded virtual schools. In 2013-14, the latest available data from the Education Department, there were 478 virtual schools educating 199,815 students, less than one-half of 1 percent of total enrollment across the country.

Virtual schools have been useful for some populations of students, including those who have had a hard time in traditional public schools, though they have become controversial. Many have extremely low graduation rates and are often subject to minimal oversight. There is no high-quality research showing that cyber education is an acceptable full-time replacement for traditional classrooms.

More reading:

Here’s who Trump invited to the White House to talk about schools. The list says a lot about his education priorities.

Why charter schools get public education advocates so angry