Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Reality Check on Secretary DeVos’ School Choice Agenda

The Trump administration has big ambitions to ramp up school choice — both public and private — but those desires have quickly bumped up against political reality. Will the president and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos deliver? It remains to be seen, though speakers on a recent EWA panel expressed some skepticism.

The president’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 would create a $250 million program for school vouchers and boost federal aid to charter schools from $330 million to about $500 million. In addition, as Education Week explains, the plan would let states redirect $1 billion from the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students to support public school choice programs. Some analysts have questioned how feasible this actually is in practice.

That’s not a lot of money, particularly for vouchers, said Samuel Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University.

“I was thinking something more along the lines of Race to the Top,” he said — a reference to the Obama administration’s signature $4.35 billion program to improve schools. Key factors used to judge state plans were demonstrating a charter-friendly environment and tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

Challenges Not Just in ‘Blue’ States

Looking at the federal possibilities, the panelists said the Trump budget proposal appeared to be a political non-starter. Indeed, the U.S. House advanced an education budget July 19 that included neither the voucher program nor the change to Title I, according to a report in Education Week.

Many states have rejected or stalled on private school choice options as well.

Thirty-seven states have clauses in their constitutions that prohibit public aid to religious schools, said panelist Maggie Garrett, the co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education, which opposes vouchers. Those states could not participate in any federal incentive dollars offered by DeVos that involve religious schools, Garrett said.

When Nevada’s legislature approved the first near-universal education savings account in 2015, school-choice advocates cheered. These accounts let families use some portion of their child’s state school funding allotment for private school tuition, homeschool textbooks and other educational purposes.

But the program hasn’t gotten off the ground. First, the state Supreme Court nixed its funding source. Shortly after the EWA panel in June, the legislature approved a budget that did not fund the accounts, according to Education Week.

It’s not just politically blue states that have rejected private school choice programs.

Voucher advocates in Texas have so far not been able to enact a voucher program. An attempt to offer education savings accounts for students with disabilities crashed and burned during the spring legislative session, according to local news outlets.

A key barrier to vouchers and voucher-like programs in Texas is the core role of public schools in rural areas, the panelists said – as employers and meeting places – and the lack of private school options. The two Republican senators who voted against confirming DeVos as secretary, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, represent largely rural states.

Tapping the Tax Code

President Trump has another avenue to push school choice on the horizon. Politicos are speculating that his call for an overhaul of the federal tax system will include tuition tax-credit scholarships.

Compared to vouchers, tax-credit scholarships are “the cool cousin instead of the cousin who shows up and acts up,” said 50CAN executive vice president Derrell Bradford, who generally supports such policies.

These programs give individuals and corporations a back-end tax break for donations to certain private school scholarship organizations, whereas money for vouchers comes directly from the state. That means the scholarships sidestep laws that limit state school spending, and proponents can argue that they don’t directly divert money from public schools. More students use these scholarships than vouchers.

However, Abrams said, if you reduce taxes for tuition donations, “there’s that much less money in the coffers to spend on public schools.”

States may have to re-examine their policies denying public money to religious schools in the light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri. The high court ruled that the state could not deny a “public benefit” to a religious organization.

Despite the slowdown in Nevada, education savings accounts appear to have legs. Legislatures in 25 states introduced bills on ESAs this year but only three saw such legislation become law this year so far, according to EdChoice, a research and advocacy group that supports private school choice programs. There’s a new program in Arizona; some Ohio lawmakers are trying to consolidate and expand the state’s private school choice programs, he said.

Texas may enact savings accounts for disabled students after all. The Legislature is now back for a July-August special session focused on just 20 bills. The Texas Senate education committee passed the savings account plan by an 8-2 vote July 21, according to a report in the Texas Tribune. That said, the same committee also backed the bill in the spring, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Where Does the Money Go?

Any growth in private school choice programs gives journalists, and the public at large, a challenge: how to track the money.

Private schools generally don’t have the same reporting requirements as public schools. And requirements for public transparency in publicly funded private school programs vary widely.

For instance, in Louisiana, students in the voucher program must take all the same state tests as their peers at public school. If their scores are too low, their schools are barred from taking new voucher students. The same state’s tax rebate scholarship program requires students to test only in math and English, and schools are not penalized for poor results.

The panelists pointed to education savings account programs as a particular concern.

“This is a huge problem. You don’t know where the money is going,” said Garrett of the National Coalition for Public Education. Some states report tuition amounts but not the schools that receive them, she said; some provide no information about student outcomes.

That hurts parents who are supposed to be empowered, she said. And it limits the role of taxpayers, who “should have a role in saying how public funds are spent.”

Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, said his group was trying to help: “We actually love this idea of transparency and want to have more data out there.” EdChoice published a 40-plus-page report in 2016 showing how Arizona savings account users spent the money, he said.

Bradford pushed back at criticisms of voucher spending opacity by saying the black hole of funding swallowed public schools as well.

A 50-state EdBuild survey of state spending on public education found “there are 50 ways to spend money poorly and then not know what you’re going to get out of it,” he said. “We can collect resources with the best intent (but) have absolutely no idea where it goes and even less of an idea of what we actually want to get for it.”

Civil Rights Enforcement

The issue of civil rights has received some scrutiny lately when it comes to private school choice — specifically whether Secretary DeVos would allow public money to go to schools that discriminate against LGBT students. The panel discussed this issue only briefly.

Garrett was concerned about protections for these students. Even programs that have a nondiscrimination clause might not have a way to enforce it, she said.

Enlow disagreed, saying federal and state offices of civil rights are supposed to enforce violations. As for protecting the rights of students with disabilities, Enlow, who has a child with special needs, said that not all traditional public schools serve all kids either.

Bradford pointed out that his alma mater, an Episcopal boys’ school, excluded women.

“I feel like ‘discrimination’ is the wrong word to describe a very complicated and thought-provoking issue that we need to deal with under civil rights protections,” he said.