Ask yourself this. What would you tell a used car salesman who tried to get you to pay top dollar for a clunker that didn’t run? The used car salesmen in this case is #45 Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the clunker is school vouchers. The cost of the clunker of a program that they’re going to do everything they can to sell Congress and taxpayers on is not a few thousand dollars but billions. That’s billions that must come from somewhere to pay for this clunker of a program, and that somewhere is public schools.
DeVos and school voucher cheerleaders have screamed long and loud that vouchers are the panacea for grossly underserved, failing public schools. And that the mostly poor black and Hispanic students in them would soar to the academic skies if they could just get into a pricey, preppy, private school somewhere. Except for a brief, half-hearted attempt by the Obama administration to allocate more federal dollars for voucher programs, their voucher education pipe dream has been confined to schools in D.C., and a handful of states.
That may change. Trump proposes plopping a couple billion more federal dollars into voucher programs in 2018. That isn’t the worst of it. He and DeVos openly call for something that has never happened in the history of federal funding of public schools in the country. That’s a federal tax credit program at the federal level such as exists in Florida and some other states. This would directly put taxpayers on the hook for bankrolling private schools with vouchers as the pathway into them. This is the ultimate in making the case that education would literally be for sale with the seller being the White House.
Trump and DeVos’s disdain for public education is well-known. DeVos through her non-profit, American Federation for Children, has turned charters into a cash cow by pushing charters with millionaire investors and entrepreneurs. In the process, numbers of public schools have been shuttered along the way. But neither one would never have dared been the fanatic boosters of school vouchers if two things hadn’t emboldened them.
One is the handful of studies that purport to show that vouchers in some very carefully proscribed cases do marginally boost test scores for some black students in very select voucher programs. However, several recent studies more than counter those findings. In one in 2015, researchers looked at Indiana’s school vouchers program which had thousands of students. It was pushed to the ceiling by then Governor Mike Pence. They found that voucher students in private schools not only did not improve achievement in math and reading, but had “significant losses.”
The study was no fluke. A similar study months later in Louisiana, which like Indiana, has a big, and expansive voucher program found the same. There was no improvement in math and reading scores among the mostly black, and poor students in the state’s voucher program.
Then there is the study by a conservative think tank of Ohio’s voucher program. It has no liberal, anti-voucher ax to grind. It has been a long champion of school vouchers. Yet it still found the same result as the studies of Indiana and Louisiana schools. There was no improvement in math and reading for these students. There was big slippage in their achievement compared to students in the private schools they were enrolled in.
Trump and DeVos could care less about studies like these. Their voucher agenda is driven by their fanatical disdain for public schools, and the prospect of raking in tons of money from propagating private education, vouchers and charters. But they also are emboldened by something else. That’s black parents. Many regard vouchers as their children’s ticket out of miserably failing public schools. In years past, surveys found that most black parents wanted vouchers. They are the ones who are the most likely to have children attending public schools.
In 1990, when the mostly black, and failing Milwaukee public schools authorized vouchers for private schools, the stampede by black parents to grab the money and dash their children into private or parochial schools was so great, school officials had to have a lottery to decide who received a voucher. To the shock of black leaders many black activists instead of denouncing vouchers as a right-wing threat to public schools denounced black leaders for opposing them.
The activists saw vouchers as a weapon against an insensitive, stagnant, often racist educational bureaucracy that systematically victimizes black children. To them, they are a steppingstone toward educational empowerment.
Many black parents didn’t scream for vouchers to rebel against civil rights leaders, because they were sudden converts to conservative politics, or because they want to wreck public education. They were simply fed up with the decaying, crime-ridden schools, terrible teachers, indifferent administrators that their students are dumped into.
The longing and sentiment for quality education is understandable. But there’s just too much history that shows that vouchers aren’t the answer no matter what Trump and DeVos think.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book, The Trump Challenge to Black America (Middle Passage Press) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.