Betsy DeVos has been confirmed (just barely) as Secretary of Education. I heard a lot of outrageous claims about her views in the run up to the vote. The other day, I had a Twitter conversation with someone talking about many of these claims. Then, oddly, I had the almost exact conversation with a friend who is a teacher. She even used some of the same phrases.
Well, slap me silly … that sounded like folks who are getting their talking points from the same source. I’m not surprised that my friend is clinging to old forms for dear life. It’s how she pays her bills. But that made me curious as to whether these claims had any merit.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) alleged that she was voting against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education because:
- DeVos opposes policies that allow “our young people, all of them, to participate in our democracy and compete on a fair footing in the workforce.”
- DeVos supports “voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability.”
- “The voucher programs that Ms. DeVos advocates leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover; the programs also leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs.”
Brad, who is from New Hampshire originally and still has family there who know who Maggie Hassan really is, explained that Senator Hassan (who comes from a very privileged background) sent her own kid to a private school and he found it interesting that she would deny the same benefits to other people’s children. Then I noticed that she has a disabled child that she sent to public school and required that the school change policies to accommodate his needs. This caused Brad to quip, “apparently ‘substandard’ private schooling was okay for her daughter, but if there’d been another school that was better for her son, no way.”
Understand that school choice only recently passed in Missouri, where DeVos was a leading advocate of it, so any claims that school choice has been a disaster in Missouri are merely prophetic in nature. That’s not been the experience of other states, though programs still remain too limited to actually prove claims of school choice being a miracle in education reform.
Let’s be honest. Under the current U.S. education system, the quality of students’ schooling is largely determined by their parents’ income. Wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families typically end up in the nation’s worst schools. That’s reality.
Contrary to popular perception, funding is not the primary cause of differences between schools. Since the early 1970s, school districts with large portions of minority students have spent about the same amount per student as districts with fewer minorities. This is shown by studies conducted by the left-leaning Urban Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, Ph.D. economist Derek Neal, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. All these diverse sources being in agreement should tell us that their figures are trustworthy.
And, despite what the alt-right might believe, minorities are not intellectually inferior, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that people of all races can excel if they have access to competent schooling. For example, in 2009, Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, had:
- a mostly Hispanic population.
- one-third of the students not fluent in English and no bilingual classes.
- 80% of the students poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
- lower spending per student than the New York City average.
- the highest average math score of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of the students scoring “advanced.”
- the top-dozen English scores of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of students passing.
School quality plays a significant role in student performance. Hassan and other critics of school choice are keenly aware of this, which is why they send their kids to better schools. These other critics of school choice who send their kids to private schools would include Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, who all sent their own children to private K-12 schools. It would also include Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who had this to say about choosing to live in Arlington, Virginia so his daughter could attend its public schools. In his words:
That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.
Duncan’s statement is a tacit admission that public schools in the D.C. area often jeopardize the education of children, but his child deserved better. Few parents have the choice that Duncan made because most cannot afford to live in places like Arlington (average median family income $144,843) . Most taxpayers cannot afford to pay both the property taxes for a public school system they aren’t using and the tuition to an elite private high school like Phillips Exeter Academy, where Hassan’s daughter attended. Vouchers are meant to correct that.
The existing U.S. education system does not provide an equal footing for children, but Hassan criticizes DeVos for supporting school choice, which would reduce the inequity. By its very definition, school choice allows parents to select the schools their children attend, an option that Hassan and other affluent people regularly exercise. But while they are smart enough, apparently, to choose a good private school for their children, we mere taxpayers must continue to send our children to failing public schools.
Just look at the facts that disprove Hassan’s claim that DeVos wants to “divert taxpayer dollars” to non-public schools “without requirements for accountability.”
First, private school choice generally increases public school per-pupil spending, which according to Stephen Cornman, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, is “the gold standard in school finance.”
Private school choice programs boost per-student funding in public schools because the public schools no longer educate the students who go to the private schools, which typically spend much less per student than public schools. Vouchers are typically less than 2/3rds of the per-student funding, so this leaves additional funding for the students who remain in public schools.
According to the latest available data, the average spending per student in private K-12 schools was about $6,762. In the same year, the average spending per student in public schools was $13,398. Yeah, that’s about twice as much.
Second, school choice provides the most direct form of accountability, that demanded by students and parents. With school choice, if parents are unhappy with any school, they have the ability to send their children to other schools. This means that every school is accountable to every parent.
Under the current public education system, schools are accountable to government officials, not students and parents. Hassan knows this because her son has severe disabilities, and Hassan used her influence as a lawyer to get her son’s public elementary school to “accommodate his needs” while sending her daughter to one of those high-quality “unaccountable” private schools.
Unlike Hassan, people without a law degree, extra time on their hands, or ample financial resources are at the mercy of politicians and government employees. Most children and parents are stuck with their public schools, regardless of whether they are effective or safe. That is precisely the situation that DeVos would like to fix through school choice, but Hassan talks as if DeVos were trying to do the opposite.
Third, Hassan has actually advocated for more taxpayer funds to be used for private schools. Her campaign website states that she “will fight to expand Pell Grants” which are often used for private colleges like Brown University, the Ivy League school that she, her husband, and her daughter attended.
That’s right — Hassan supports using taxpayer money for top students to attend elite private universities, but she opposes the same opportunity for poor students to attend private K-12 schools. Of course, that misses the very real point that poor students can’t hope to qualify for those elite private universities if they haven’t had quality K-12 education.
Why do I smell apartheid in the air?
Hassan’s position on college aid also undercuts her objection that DeVos supports programs that “leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover.” If that were truly Hassan’s objection, she would also oppose aid that doesn’t cover the full costs of every college, because that would leave out students who can’t pay the rest of the tuition. Thanks for thinking of us, Maggie! I’m so touched! Bless your tiny little heart! If covering the rest of the tuition is important to me, I’ll get a second job to pick up that extra few thousand, something I can now do because the voucher gets me closer to the goal.
Fourth, contrary to Hassan’s rhetoric about accountability to taxpayers, she supports current spending levels in public K-12 schools, “debt-free public college for all,” and expanding “early childhood education” in spite of the facts that:
- the U.S. spends an average of 31% more per K-12 student than other developed nations, but 15-year-olds in the U.S. rank 31st among 35 nations in math.
- federal, state, and local governments spend about $900 billion per year on formal education, but only 18% of U.S. residents aged 16 and older can correctly answer a word problem requiring the ability to search text, interpret it, and calculate using multiplication and division.
- the average spending per public school classroom is $286,000 per year, but only 26% of the high school students who take the ACT exam meet its college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math, and science).
- federal, state and local governments spend $173 billion per year on higher education, but 80% of first-time, full-time students who enroll in a public community college do not receive a degree from the college within 10 years of matriculation.
- 4-year public colleges spend an average of $40,033 per year for each full-time student, but one-third of students who graduate from 4-year colleges don’t improve their “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and writing” skills by more than one percentage point over their entire college careers.
- the federal government funds dozens of preschool programs, and the largest —Head Start—spends an average of $8,772 per child per year, but it produces no measurable benefit by the time students reach 3rd grade.
Is that accountability? It doesn’t look like it to me. Hassan supports pumping taxpayer money into programs with high costs and substandard outcomes, but she opposes doing the same for private K–12 schools that already demonstrably produce better outcomes at far lower costs.
Hassan’s claim that private school choice programs “leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs” is also false. Did you know there are more than 30 private, state-approved, special education schools in northern and central New Jersey? Apparently, these parents feel these schools serve the needs of their children better than the public schools in their areas, or else they wouldn’t pay to send their kids there and these private schools would not exist. But yeah, if you’re poor, you probably can’t afford them unless you can get a school choice voucher.
In a recent brief to the Nevada Supreme Court, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, and its state affiliate argue that free-market voucher programs will lead to “cream-skimming—the drawing away of the brightest and most motivated students to private schools which would lead to a highly stratified system of education.”
The current public school system is already highly stratified by income, and income and education go hand in hand. Truthfully, the real issue is not stratification but what happens to students who stay in public schools. Contrary to the belief that school choice will harm these students, a mass of evidence shows the opposite.
At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one found neutral-to-positive results, and none found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that the competition created by school choice induces public schools to improve.
Wide-ranging evidence prove that school choice is a win for students, parents, and taxpayers. It does, however, financially harm teachers unions by depriving them of dues, because private schools are less likely to have unions than public ones. A shift in that direction would financially harm Democratic politicians, political action committees, and related organizations, which have received about $200 million in reported donations from the two largest teachers’ unions since 1990.
Teachers’ unions are firmly opposed to private school choice, and the National Education Association has sent an open letter to Democrats stating that “opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.” So, of course, they voted in lockstep against DeVos because we all know that the NEA stands opposed to improving education if it results in damaging its position within the hierarchy of elitist power.