The Issue With School Vouchers: More Choices Won’t Address Major Problems

Bryan Dewan

The following quote comes directly from our newly anointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Twitter account: “I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again. The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”  

In this tweet, posted shortly after DeVos was nominated for, or maybe bought, the cabinet position that she is absolutely unqualified for, DeVos makes two claims. The first of these claims is that she is honored to work with Donald Trump on his vision to make American education great again. In the second claim, DeVos states that the status quo in [education] is not acceptable. I wish to unpack both of these claims in order to address DeVos’ stances on school vouchers.

DeVos’ first claim suggests that the American education system was once great, and that somehow it has lost its greatness over time. This overall sentiment that the American education system was once vastly superior to its international counterparts is a myth. The United States has ranked dead last or near last in many international education assessments since the 1960s. I must admit that the American education system was once pretty great when we had the G.I. Bill, incredibly cheap tuition at public colleges and Schoolhouse Rock VHS tapes. But I digress. DeVos believes that the only way to reclaim the American education system’s former glory and greatness is to introduce a radical and dramatic policy scheme that has never been a consequential feature of U.S. education during any time in American history. She has great faith that massively expanding the number of charter schools will return the United States to a time of educational greatness…when there were virtually no charter schools anywhere in the country. The logic is astounding!

DeVos, however, is right about one thing: the status quo in education is not acceptable. Only 80 percent of K-12 students will graduate high school. The number is even lower for black and Hispanic students. The teachers who teach these students are too often underpaid, underappreciated and underqualified. In total, 40 percent of Americans hold college degrees, which is good, but not good enough.  And Americans are paying more for their degrees than ever before. College seniors across the country graduated last year with an average of $37,172 in student loan debt. Let’s not even get started on graduate school debt (a personal sore spot).

School choice may, in fact, help to address some of these problems. Some school districts are well past the point of no return, and the introduction of charter schools in some localities may be an appropriate remedy. School choice may even promote better racial integration and social harmony in some areas. But DeVos’ ideological carpet-bombing on the school choice issue misses the point by miles. 

DeVos is a fierce proponent of school choice, but she lacks resolve to address greater issues. School choice does not directly address the need for a more professionalized teaching profession. School choice will not help low- or middle-income families pay for college. School choice will not lead to greater family or community involvement in a child’s education. School choice does not address issues of food insecurity for poor school children. School choice will not solve issues of chronic truancy. School choice does not even have a strong track record of improving education quality. 

Unfortunately, the general consensus in the education community right now is that school choice has not produced significant gains for K-12 students. It therefore comes as no surprise that school choice isn’t being primarily championed by poor or working-class families. Rather, school choice is most vocally supported by wealthy, hyper-religious donors such as DeVos and her white suburban and Evangelical supporters. For these constituencies, school choice is an opportunity to return to a time where kids were taught creationism in science class or expected to pray openly with their peers. It is an opportunity for wealthy parents to save money on their private school tuition at the expense of taxpayers. It is an opportunity to destroy teachers’ unions (instead of reforming them) and pay teachers less. For individuals such as DeVos, the status quo in education is unacceptable, as she asserts in her tweet, and school choice is the answer.

For most people, school choice likely won’t result in major benefits. They won’t substantively address major issues inside or outside of the classroom. However, for the already-privileged and dubiously ethical, school choice would be a great victory. If the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress do indeed move forward with school choice, I implore them to do so cautiously and with the best interests of all students and well-qualified teachers in mind.