Myths about School Choice and Betsy DeVos
By James D. Agresti
February 7, 2017
In an op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) alleges that she is voting against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education because:
- DeVos opposes policies that allow “our young people, all of them, to participate in our democracy and compete on a fair footing in the work force.”
- DeVos supports “voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability.”
- “The voucher programs that Ms. DeVos advocates leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover; the programs also leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs.”
Each of those claims is belied by concrete facts, and Hassan is guilty of most of the charges she levels at DeVos. Also, Hassan sent her own daughter to a private school, an opportunity that she would deny to other children.
A Fair Footing
Under the current U.S. education system, the quality of students’ schooling is largely determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often racial minorities—typically end up in the nation’s worst schools.
Contrary to popular perception, funding is not the primary cause of differences between schools. Since the early 1970s, school districts with large portions of minority students have spent about the same amount per student as districts with less minorities. This is shown by studies conducted by the left-leaning Urban Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, Ph.D. economist Derek Neal, and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Moreover, contrary to the notion that certain minorities are intellectually inferior, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that with competent schooling, people of all races can excel. For example, in 2009, Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, had:
- a mostly Hispanic population.
- one-third of the students not fluent in English and no bilingual classes.
- 80% of the students poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
- lower spending per student than the New York City average.
- the highest average math score of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of the students scoring “advanced.”
- the top-dozen English scores of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of students passing.
These and other such results indicate that school quality plays a major role in student performance. Hassan and other critics of school choice are keenly aware of this, as evidenced by the choices they make for their own children. For example, Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, stated that the primary reason he decided to live in Arlington, Virginia, was so his daughter could attend its public schools. In his words:
That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.
Duncan’s statement is an admission that public schools in the D.C. area often jeopardize the education of children, but he would not let this happen to his child. Few parents have the choice that Duncan made, because most cannot afford to live in places like Arlington, where the annual cash income of the median family is $144,843, the highest of all counties in the United States.
Other prominent opponents of private school choice—like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton—personally attended and also sent their own children to private K-12 schools. Likewise, Hassan’s daughter attended an elite private high school (Phillips Exeter Academy) where Hassan’s husband was the principal.
The existing U.S. education system does not provide an equal footing for children, but Hassan criticizes DeVos for supporting school choice, which would lessen this inequity. By its very definition, school choice allows parents to select the schools their children attend, an option that Hassan and other affluent people regularly exercise.
Taxpayer Money and Accountability
Four lines of evidence disprove Hassan’s claim that DeVos wants to “divert taxpayer dollars” to non-public schools “without requirements for accountability.”
First, private school choice generally increases public school spending per student, which is the primary measure of education funding. As explained by Stephen Cornman, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, per-pupil spending is “the gold standard in school finance.”
Private school choice programs boost per-student funding in public schools, because the public schools no longer educate the students who go to the private schools, which typically spend much less per student than public schools. This leaves additional funding for the students who remain in public schools.
According to the latest available data, the average spending per student in private K-12 schools during the 2011-12 school year was about $6,762. In the same year, the average spending per student in public schools was $13,398, or about twice as much. These figures exclude state administration spending, unfunded pension liabilities, and post-employment benefits like healthcare—all of which are common in public schools and rare in private ones.
Certain school costs like building maintenance are fixed in the short term, and thus, the savings of educating fewer students occurs in steps. This means that private school choice can temporarily decrease the funding per student in some public schools, but this is brief and slight, because only 8% of public school spending is for operations and maintenance.
Second, school choice provides the most direct form of accountability, which is accountability to students and parents. With school choice, if parents are unhappy with any school, they have the ability to send their children to other schools. This means that every school is accountable to every parent.
Under the current public education system, schools are accountable to government officials, not students and parents. Again, Hassan knows this, because her son has severe disabilities, and Hassan used her influence as a lawyer to get her son’s public elementary school to “accommodate his needs.”
Unlike Hassan, people without a law degree, extra time on their hands, or ample financial resources are at the mercy of politicians and government employees. Short of legal action or changing an election outcome, most children and parents are stuck with their public schools, regardless of whether they are effective or safe. That is precisely the situation that DeVos would like to fix through school choice, but Hassan talks as if DeVos were trying to do the opposite.
Third, taxpayer funds are commonly used for private schools, and Hassan actually wants more of this. Her campaign website states that she “will fight to expand Pell Grants” but fails to reveal that these are often used for private colleges like, for example, Brown University, the Ivy League school that she, her husband, and her daughter attended (disclosure: so did this author).
In other words, Hassan supports using taxpayer money for top students to attend elite private universities, but she opposes the same opportunity for poor students to attend private K-12 schools.
Hassan’s position on college aid also undercuts her objection that DeVos supports programs that “leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover.” If that were truly Hassan’s objection, she would also oppose aid that doesn’t cover the full costs of every college, because that would leave out students who can’t pay the rest of the tuition.
Fourth, contrary to Hassan’s rhetoric about accountability to taxpayers, she supports current spending levels on public K-12 schools, “debt-free public college for all,” and expanding “early childhood education” in spite of the facts that:
- the U.S. spends an average of 31% more per K-12 student than other developed nations, but 15-year olds in the U.S. rank 31st among 35 nations in math.
- federal, state, and local governments spend about $900 billion per year on formal education, but only 18% of U.S. residents aged 16 and older can correctly answer a word problem requiring the ability to search text, interpret it, and calculate using multiplication and division.
- the average spending per public school classroom is $286,000 per year, but only 26% of the high school students who take the ACT exam meet its college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math, and science).
- federal, state and local governments spend $173 billion per year on higher education, but 80% of first-time, full-time students who enroll in a public community college do not receive a degree from the college within 150% of the normal time required to do so.
- 4-year public colleges spend an average of $40,033 per year for each full-time student, but one-third of students who graduate from 4-year colleges don’t improve their “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and writing” skills by more than one percentage point over their entire college careers.
- the federal government funds dozens of preschool programs, and the largest —Head Start—spends an average of $8,772 per child per year, but it produces no measurable benefit by the time students reach 3rd grade.
In sum, Hassan supports pumping taxpayer money into programs with high costs and substandard outcomes, but she opposes doing the same for private K–12 schools that produce better outcomes with far less cost.
Hassan’s claim that private school choice programs “leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs” is also false.
In Northern and Central New Jersey, there are more than 30 private special education schools that are approved by the state. As far as parents are concerned, these schools serve the needs of their children better than the public schools in their areas. If this were not the case, these private schools would not exist.
More importantly, if parents don’t think that a private school will be best for their special needs child, school choice allows them to keep the child in a public school that is better funded thanks to the money saved by school choice.
In a recent brief to the Nevada Supreme Court, the nation’s largest teachers’ union and its state affiliate argue that free-market voucher programs will lead to “cream-skimming—the drawing away of the most advantaged students to private schools––and lead to a highly stratified system of education.”
As detailed above, the current public school system is highly stratified by income, and income and education go hand in hand. Hence, the real issue is not stratification but what happens to students who stay in public schools. Contrary to the belief that school choice will harm these students, a mass of evidence shows the opposite.
At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one found neutral-to-positive results, and none found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that school choice stimulates competition that induces public schools to improve.
Who Wins and Who Loses?
Wide-ranging facts prove that school choice is a win for students, parents, and taxpayers. However, it financially harms teachers unions by depriving them of dues, because private schools are less likely to have unions than public ones.
In turn, this financially harms Democratic politicians, political action committees, and related organizations, which have received about $200 million in reported donations from the two largest teachers’ unions since 1990. Unions also give many unreported donations to Democratic Party causes.
Teachers’ unions are firmly opposed to private school choice, and the National Education Association has sent an open letter to Democrats stating that “opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.”
So why does Hassan oppose giving other children opportunities that she gave to her own children? Motives are difficult to divine, but the reasons she gave in her op-ed are at odds with verifiable facts and her own actions.
I lean towards supporting school vouchers and school choice. But I have one concern to which I have not developed an answer. In the area around my Church, there are some public school and one charter school. This charter school does a fantastic job! The kids who get to attend there are very fortunate.
But not everyone has an equal chance of attending. They use a type of lottery system. You apply early in the calendar year for the semester that will occur in the fall. The lottery itself begins in March. If approved, a letter is sent with time constraints on responding back. If you don’t respond, too bad. They do another lottery next month until all slots are filled. Your chance is gone till next year. The problem is that the very poor have horrible stability in their lives. Obtaining birth certificates, id’s, filling out the applications, etc are hard for those who struggle with their own lack of education. Now, they need to provide a mailing location. You can’t just call– you need to return the approval packet. They may not be in the same housing for long enough to get mail. To someone from a middle class background, that might sound lame. But I interact with the parents at my Church. They desperately want to improve the lives/lot for their kids. We help where we can. There are many others that don’t have that support. Until you have seen first-hand the plight of the very poor and very uneducated, it is difficult to understand these struggles. Those who come to our Church are better just because we help them learn how to be an advocate for themselves and their family. But we are a small voice in a loud concert hall.
As I said in the beginning. I am leaning towards support for vouchers. But there are other issues that need to be addressed also.
On a related but different point: I would love to read the study you mentioned above about 21 studies showing improvement in local public schools after school choice is implemented. However, the cost of reading that article is very high. I appreciate your summary in your main article at http://www.justfacts.com/education.asp#choice_gov
but I’d love to read the original. I’m just not going to pay $42 for the privilege.
Lotteries are often used when governments limit the amount of children who are eligible for school choice programs. Removing these restrictions would go along ways toward solving this problem.
I’d like to share the paper, but copyright law forbids me from doing so, because the paper is owned by someone else. Some are pushing for a law that would require all academic journals to make their papers freely available if the underlying studies are conducted with government funds, which many of them are.
Yu sound so sympathetic and interested in helping these people. Maybe you could help the schools that they go to become better schools. Volunteer at the schools o help teachers or tutor students, have fund raisers for the schools, motivate more parents to get involved. There must be a reason that the Charter Schools are doing better, WHY ?
Who says they’re doing better? I would think that it would depend on where that school is located and the knowledge of the teachers and parents and how much the parents value education. By the way I don’t think that the charter schools have to take any state mandated test (like the MEAP) so how are you going to compare athe public vs the charter schools.
Here’s another thing that most people don’t talk about the public schools have to take anybody that comes through the door, the charter schools can choose who they want. The public schools have to provide special education classes for those students that need them. The charter school won’t take them because they cost more to educate them, so they save the money and don’t let them in. Don’t tell me they don’t want to know if the student needs special education or not, Detroit Catholic Central (in Novi, Mi.) has it right on their application. They say this won’t influence their decision on whether the student gets accepted or not, but then why would they ask that question.
More kids having an opportunity is a good thing. Plus more money and focus on the ones who couldn’t get in. Public Schools have less kids and more money. will help the public schools. Focus on the ones with incompetent parents that need special focus.
Schools have room for improvement but it is not the teacher unions that tell us what and how to teach. That privilege has been given to the government. The government sets curriculum and textbook choices. It tells us what and when to teach and when to test. Students are tested on the states curriculum. With 50 states that’s 50 different standards, tests and curriculum. Currently curriculums leave little room for creativity. Each teacher says the same words in the same order and at the prescribed time. That also means every student hears the same message in the same order and is expected to give back that info at the prescribed time. Governments also dole out the “school funds” and there are many strings attached to that money. This includes taking away money when students move. The money is not left there to improve the school but given to the school where the students now attend. The point is if students leave the school with a voucher the money is gone (because someone has to pay for the voucher). The quality of the students remaining at the school may diminish. Vouchers do not miraculously fix education.
Daniel, your basic premise is having equally in education, or is it equality in educational choice My last car’s top speed at 200,000 miles was 65. According to your equality theory everyone who has a newer faster car must be forced to sell their car and buy the slower government matte grey “Yugo” which only goes 60 miles per hour. (safer highways also) Then we have equality. Is that what you want for the automobile industry and America’s education? The free market (parental choice) is so much better IMO.
Give me a break. Obviously it’s not as important to reply as quickly as necessary. They must have other priorities. sad
Lotteries are used because the demand to get into the schools exceeds the school’s capacity and their stated goal to keep class sizes small.
If that is so, why don’t we have lotteries for TVs, automobiles, and back rubs? There are virtually no lotteries for any product or service unless governments create artificial scarcity.
No, there are only so many seats in a classroom, so many classrooms in a building etc. It is not the same thing at all.
There are also so many seats in an airplane, but we don’t have lotteries for these.
Airplane seats are sold on a first come first served basis. The lottery is an attempt to give you an opportunity. If the former process was used you would claim it was unfair.
There is no shortage of airline seats, because the market is generally free to meet the demand. Likewise, if government did not restrict school choice, there would be no need for lotteries, because the market would create enough school seats to meet the demand. It’s basic supply and demand.
A lottery for airline seats is not relevant to the argument since there is wide variance in the public good derived from seats on a plane vs seats in a classroom. A food lottery would at h up better with the classroom seat lottery. Both are essential for student
success. We don’t do this for food maybe we shouldn’t be rationing school seats either.
The point is the same. We don’t have food lotteries or shortages in the U.S., because the market is generally free to operate. In nations where it is not, there are food lines.
Someone please explain to me exactly how the vouchers would work. PArents would receive these vouchers from the state / government which would have monetary value? And there would be a cost to attend whatever school they choose? Each school wou,d what cost same /different? The parent wou,d have to make up the difference in cost of they choose that school? Most popular schools would cost more? Supply…demand will be an issue. And explain to me what would happen to taxpayers and Their yearly school tax bill? And in the end of all of this voucher system there will be no unions to protect the hard working teachers … Which could also lead to a shortage of teachers because of work environment / atmosphere. No sure no union is a good thing….need to research that one.
Vouchers works by having the annual funding per student attached to the family and the student’s profile. let’s just say each student in your state is given 10k in a voucher to shop for a school. Schools are forced to compete for students and are free to multiply if their model is proven to be appealing and succesful for families and kids. If a school charges 15k per year, families can choose to go there and pay the remaining 5k out of pocket. This will be appealing to some and not for others, but they have the choice. The school in the current system STILL costs 15k, which is prohibitive for most families, but with a voucher, that out of pocket comes down to 5k out of pocket, which is more doable for families that choose to go that route. If a school costs LESS than 10k, then the remaining balance can be dealt with in multiple ways. It could be placed into a student savings account that could be applied in future years or even to college, or it could be counted as a tax write-off each year. These are some of the options that could be written into a final law. I favor student savings accounts, but that is just me. Supply and demand is in full effect with a voucher system. Schools are forced to spend wisely and be accountable financially or else their tuition rates go up and appeal to fewer families. Schools are free to explore alternative education styles to be appealing to families that are not in favor of a traditional format. Teachers are made the number one priority in terms of school spending and attracting good teachers and keeping them becomes critical to maintaining a good reputation and thus attracting students year over year. The teachers unions are holding teachers BACK from teaching the way that they want to and marketing themselves and thus increasing their earning potential. The unions have created a first in, last out policy that makes firing bad teachers almost impossible. New, young, and energetic teachers are not able to get their foot in the door and show that there is a better way because the unions favor veteran teachers who have paid a ton into the union, no matter how talented they are. There’s loads of pros for school choice and vouchers and no cons. Give families the power to make choices and hold the schools accountable through the power of the free market.
Perfect explanation!!!!! People do not understand how this works and that it actually gives more opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise have a choice. It also makes public schools get their act together so their families will want to stay. I have been teaching since 1997 and have taught in both public and private schools. My kids attended private and now public schools. Property taxes in NE are outrageous so most of us can’t afford private school tuition on top of that. Fortunately, in Papillion (best city in the country!) we have fantastic public schools.
In one of the previous messages the person said that the charter school would spend more money to attract better teachers and that they would try to make teaching in their school attractive for teachers. I don’t know anybody that has taught in a charter school and received a level of pay equal to the public school and they don’t have a union to protect them if something should happen to them, be it an irate parent or a principal who is out to get somebody.
These same teachers that I know if they had a chance they would opt to teach in a public school system. The charter schools that they were working in did very little to take care of their teachers. These charter schools are in business to make money, so why would they pay teachers a good wage.
I currently am a director at a charter school and we pay much higher than the public school dunto low overhead cost and with no union dues. Also like competition for students there are competing for good teachers ..high pay will continue with school choice.
Schools don’t pay union dues teachers do. Out of their own pocket. Along with paper, pencils, trade books. When I retired my class library was about 200 books. All of which I had purchased out of my salary. At the end most went to students so they would have books at home they could read. I’ve worked in private schools and public. For the same job I earned $300 at the private school and at the same time I took home $1200 from the public school. Teachers will have a hard time surviving on a private school salary especially if they are a single parent.
I was an educator for 36 years, teaching 7th through 12th grades and adults. I worked in two states in lower income counties. My children attended public and private schools. Both children have learning disabilities, both now have college degrees, one with a Master’s.
Funding for teacher pay and facilities is important, however more important is creating a positive atmosphere of acceptance and learning to interact with people from various backgrounds. The everyday violence that occurs in schools has got to stop. The disrespect for teachers and administrators has got to stop. Yes, there are good public schools and bad public schools, however the same can be said for private schools.
You can talk funding all you want but until attitudes are changed our kids test scores will remain overall not so “great.”
I was fortunate to have began my education in a small country school (less than 200 students, 1 – 12 grades). I was a successful adult because the school made sure that we knew we could be anything we wanted to be if we worked for our goal. Failure was not an option. As a new teacher I was shocked to learn that every school didn’t promote these values.
What about transportation? There will be schools that will be too far for many poor families without cars.. is there a solution to that? Also what if school choice become law and the school I want to go to suddenly has a 2000 student wait list? I am back to my regular school. Also will it cause people to move around throughout the year to schools because they are unhappy?
If you are interested in another point of view from this biased article, look no further than Detroit.