Radically Flawed: The Truth About Vouchers

Co-authored by Adam Kirk Edgerton, Lightning Jay, Elaine W. Leigh, and Katie Pak

“Traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear: in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.” – Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos will arrive for her confirmation hearing as Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education with no experience overseeing schools at any level. Her record is based entirely on her advocacy for school vouchers and what she has called “radical reforms,” advocacy backed up by donations from her family’s Amway fortune.

Since the Trump administration is embracing vouchers, Senators should spend DeVos’ hearing asking why the department’s biggest priority should be pushing a concept that has failed wherever it’s been introduced over the last thirty years.

Let’s look at the evidence.

In Cleveland, many of the families who received vouchers were those who would have sent their children to private schools anyway. The vouchers merely served as rebates for costs they would otherwise have covered themselves - instead of helping the neediest, they helped those who could already afford private education. The voucher system in Indiana (expanded under Mike Pence) was intended to save money, but it actually created a deficit of $40 million in the school year 2014-2015 and $53 million in 2015-2016. The lower per pupil costs for students receiving vouchers in Milwaukee resulted in a bigger pool of state aid but less money to Milwaukee ― prompting an increase in city property taxes to offset the loss.

The expansion of vouchers in the name of choice will hurt students that already receive the least support. The loss of funding to public schools will hit not just urban schools, but rural schools as well, a tragedy already occurring in Indiana. Poor students and students with severe disabilities will be left in ailing public schools because voucher-accepting private schools will not want to take them in.

Students with vouchers will encounter even more risk as they attend private schools that are not held publicly accountable for results, high standards and equal treatment for all students. Private schools that accept vouchers are legally permitted to discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and other markers of difference.

Sweden and Chile, two countries with full school choice systems, provide examples of choice increasing segregation based on race, class, religion, and income, while decreasing school performance. Vouchers too often act as an ill-fitting, infection-inducing band-aid on a broader, more systemic wound caused by inequitable resources for our neediest kids.

In her home state of Michigan, DeVos’ influence has helped create a system of low-performing schools with minimal oversight. We worry that this same lack of accountability will color her approach to a national voucher program. States like our own, Pennsylvania, have among the highest income thresholds for school choice eligibility ― $75,000 annually on top of $15,000 per child. Who, then, is really being served?

Despite all this, DeVos and the president-elect support vouchers. Trump’s First 100 Days Plan includes a $20 billion federal voucher program for all children living in poverty. Trump would pay for it by raiding the Title I budget, which provides federal funding for schools serving higher percentages of low-income students. The rationale is the money would follow the child to the school of their choice.

In practice, it rarely works like this.

We have worked closely with underserved families as advocates and counselors in their school choice decisions. The process is stacked against students with more difficult home situations, as only the most active, educated and vocal parents secure coveted spots. Not only will dismantling Title I widen the gross inequities between affluent and less affluent schools and families, but also it will result in a mere $580 check for each child if all 25 million poor students in the U.S. received an equal share of the pot.

If championing failed voucher programs is DeVos’ primary qualification to lead the Department of Education, then the evidence shows DeVos is not qualified. The Senate should reject her nomination.

At the very least, vouchers do little to bring transformational change for our neediest students. When poorly regulated, they spend more to provide a worse education and increase inequality. While we may not support the idea of opting out of public schooling, we can still point to better models with strict income thresholds, caps to prevent out-of-control tax write-offs, and tight reporting requirements that allow the public to see who is actually being served. These lessons learned on the backs of students and families should drive any new proposals from our federal government, which should be invested in the public good of our shared education system.

Adam Kirk Edgerton, Lightning Jay, Elaine W. Leigh, and Katie Pak are former teachers from both traditional and charter schools currently pursuing doctorates at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.