Betsy DeVos & School Choice

By: Elizabeth Klein

Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, has made headlines again, and not for any important strives in education.  In a recent interview with Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes, she struggled to answer even the most basic questions regarding her own beliefs.  Stahl asked a series of questions about education that DeVos answered unhelpfully, and at times, inaccurately; Stahl interjected more than once with claims that DeVos’s information was untrue.  To make matters worse, DeVos had a particularly difficult time answering questions about school choice, which is perhaps one of the most important issues to her.

Essentially, school choice is a policy that gives increased federal funding to charter schools and private school vouchers—funding that DeVos says will allow public schools to perform better through a sense of competition.  However, many argue that moving funds to charter and private schools will only prioritize private institutions, and public schools will get less attention.  This especially puts a strain on public schools in lower-income areas, which already need all the funding they can get.

A big aspect of what makes people so angry about school choice is the kinds of students it supports. By working to privatize education in the country, DeVos is assisting a certain group of students: white students living in higher-income areas.  The policy intentionally impacts children of color who are more likely to attend poorer schools in lower-income areas in the first place.  The taxpayer money that goes to public schools helps fund things like school lunches and provides transportation to and from school, both of which are crucial for kids who can’t afford them.  Additionally, some private and charter schools require students to participate in a certain amount of extracurricular activities, many of which take place after school.  This compounds the issue of transportation, not to mention the various payments that come with participation and membership in clubs.  This wouldn’t be a problem if vouchers covered these expenses, but often times, they don’t.  Some vouchers only pay for a certain percentage of a student’s total school fees, which changes based on a family’s total income.  This means that families have to pay out of pocket for expenses that public schools would typically cover.  School choice takes some of that money away and distribute it to those private and charter schools that end up charging parents for extra fees anyway.

Although school choice defenders say the policy gives low-income families greater options so they aren’t restricted by their neighborhood public schools, steps in the admissions process to charter and private schools may mean that children who are struggling are less likely to be accepted.  Private schools have the ability to turn away students based on factors like their “past academic performance or prior disciplinary action.”  Students, especially students of color, growing up in areas where they already lack the financial resources at home to succeed educationally are less likely to be accepted into choice schools, and school choice would increase the amount of competition for admission into such schools.  DeVos talks about how the public school system is failing the nation’s children, but how can school choice be any better when it allows schools to turn away the students that need the most help?

And what about the children who stay behind at public schools?  DeVos says that public schools will improve by a capitalist notion that if charter and private schools increase their test scores, public schools will feel the pressure and do so as well.  But schools are not businesses, and children are not products.  The children who are refused by choice schools and who don’t have parents interested in furthering their education will not improve in an underfunded public school system that the Department of Education calls a “dead end.”

It’s flawed logic.  Diluting the problems of public education with more and more choice schools isn’t going to solve those problems.  They’re just going to persist and get worse, and people like Betsy DeVos will neglect them.  In the interview, Stahl asked her if she had seen the bad schools.

“Have you seen the really bad schools?  Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?”

“I have not,” DeVos said.  “I have not intentionally visit schools that are underperforming.”
Her policy of school choice isn’t going to help public education because Betsy DeVos doesn’t want to help public education.  Over 50 million children depend on public schools in this country.  DeVos is right to believe that many of these schools have problems.  But the way to solve them isn’t to take their money away and give it to schools that have the power to select and reject students that often need the most help.  It’s not a bad thing for parents to have increased options in their child’s education.  But school choice should only happen after efforts are made to give more attention to the public school system, not less.


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