DeVos prioritizes grants for school choice programs. But it won’t help all students.

The Education secretary continues to champion a policy that has left many students behind.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the White House Summit on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Sept. 18, 2017, in Washington. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the White House Summit on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Sept. 18, 2017, in Washington. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled a document Thursday outlining her policy priorities, and while it comes as no surprise that she intends to steer more grant funding to school choice programs, it’s unlikely that the programs will be effective.

School choice, or programs that provide alternatives to traditional public schools, has been at the center of DeVos’ national education policy since she was appointed to the Trump administration. Indeed, President Trump’s proposed 2017-2018 budget from earlier this year calls for $1.4 billion to support investments in school choice, including an additional $167 million for the Charter Schools Program and $250 million for a school voucher proposal geared toward private schools — all while proposing $9.2 billion in cuts from other federal education programs.

Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told ThinkProgress that the Education Department’s recent menu of 11 priorities “includes every good idea and every bad idea in education.”

Petrilli lauded school choice programs for empowering parents and stimulating much-needed competition among public, charter, and private schools. But, he added, the priorities are nothing new.

“We won’t know the impact it will have until they actually try to use that language in an actual grant competition,” he said, conceding that the list will nudge grantees to tailor their programs to the priorities listed.

Under the proposal, the Education Department seeks to give priority to projects that expand school choice to one or more various groups of students, including rural students, disadvantaged populations, English-language learners, special education students, racial minorities, homeless students, and students who were or are currently in foster care, among others.

Conor Williams, senior researcher for New America’s education policy program, told ThinkProgress that such a proposal might work well for high density urban environments, where integration is easier, but elsewhere, he said, “it’s not obvious that school choice would work well.”

“These are diverse groups of students with diverse needs in diverse communities all over the country,” Williams said. “More school choice isn’t going to address all of their needs … it’s just not the solution to every education problem.”

But DeVos has certainly been treating it that way. According to the Washington Post, the amount of money the administration’s budget seeks to spend on expanding school choice is “unprecedented.” DeVos, who attended private school and chose the same for her children, has referred to the public education system as a “dead end” and advocated for treating education like an “industry” that can be run much like a business.

By emphasizing school choice, DeVos aims to do just that. But doing so tends to come at the risk of greater accountability and transparency, Williams argued. A February 2016 study of Louisiana’s school voucher program, which provides government funding for students to attend schools of their choice, and a July 2016 study of Ohio’s voucher program, both found that low-income and minority students who enrolled in private schools fared worse academically.

In an article for The New York Times, Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America, suggests that the problem stems from minimal regulation.

“[T]he best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities,” Carey wrote. “The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

Williams agreed, arguing that while some private and charter schools are beholden to many of the same regulations as public schools, others are exempt, and the level of transparency tends to suffer depending on each state’s governance practices.

“What accountability are they willing to require within these school choice systems? How carefully are they willing to monitor how these dollars are being spent? Are the options that parents are getting going to be high quality? How will they know?” Williams asked.

He added that many school choice programs have been successful in improving integration and academic success over the years, but the administration should take a broader approach.

“DeVos doesn’t seem to know any notes beyond school choice,” Williams said. “Her entire song is more school choice will do more things for more families.”