On Feb. 28, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a new school choice proposal. According to a senior Department of Education official, the $5 billion proposal — which first has to skate past a determinedly opposed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives — would allow each state "to take advantage of scholarship money that would be made available for them for programs they design."

This sounds — and may even be — relatively harmless at worst and, at best, could be one of Secretary DeVos’ better ideas.

Before getting into the proposal itself, it may be useful to step back and consider what’s going on with school choice from a broader perspective. Like so many issues in our society, this one has become sharply divided between advocates of school choice on the right and critics of that choice on the left.

From a socially conservative perspective, school choice "empowers parents…to make the best possible choice for their children’s education." It "puts power in the hands of parents." This aligns well with another conservative aim, to take power and funding (approximately the same thing) away from federal bureaucrats.

The argument against school choice from a liberal perspective is not quite so straightforward. If you’d freshly arrived from Planet X you’d probably assume that everyone on Earth agrees that choice is a good thing and that it’s empowering. So what’s the problem?

First, let’s acknowledge that if you have the money to exercise it, school choice already exists. Want a better public school? Move into a better (i.e., more expensive) neighborhood!

Want a better school for your child than even the best public school education? There are plenty of private schools available, from kindergarten (New York City’s Trinity School offers excellent kindergarten classes at a yearly $36,870) to Harvard ($67,580, including room and board).

But, from a liberal perspective, if you’re a middle-income parent, or worse, a poor or minority parent, the amount of real choice in the "school choice" movement, is limited. The Huffington Post lists 10 of the most frequent liberal objections. Here, in my opinion, are the four most cogent problems with charter school education in HuffPost’s list:

  1. Voucher programs (which are what allows parents to fund their school choices) ordinarily pay for only a portion of tuition and associated costs. If you’re poor, your child may well be left behind.
  2. Just because you choose the school doesn’t mean your child will be admitted. Students admitted from other elite programs will drive up the school’s stats and test scores and therefore its marketability. Students from impoverished neighborhood schools do the opposite. You’re on your charter school’s admittance committee: which group do you favor?
  3. For the same reasons as above, charter schools have a demonstrated tendency to get rid of troublesome students early on, before they have a chance to wreck the school’s stats (and also before these ejected student have had a chance to acculturate and catch up). Charter schools give the least help to the students needing it most.
  4. The vaunted superior education offered children through school choice may be a myth. In reality, some charter schools do much worse than their public-school counterparts. What they’re better at is extracting money from parents who can afford it.

The Never-Ending War

In the preceding paragraphs, the greater amount of space devoted to anti-school-choice arguments indicates neither my own preference nor the validity of the arguments presented. It’s just that the school choice argument — freedom of choice — is a simpler argument to make.

What characterizes both arguments, however, is that they’re both so absolute. You’ll rarely read a school choice article that concedes that both sides have a point and that the underlying issue — who funds what in our American democracy and how much advantage they are entitled to for having done so — is a fundamental life-and-death issue for liberals and conservatives alike.

What this means, unfortunately, is that into the foreseeable future these opposing forces, each intending to make things better, are probably going to end up implementing neither a public school system nor a charter school system that’s adequately funded and supported.

Meanwhile, Secretary DeVos’ proposal, for all the heated debate it will prompt in Congress, is probably much ado about nothing (a play your child may or may not have had the opportunity to read, depending upon the school they attend).

The Fluff

Let’s consider the proposed funding level of $5 billion for "states to take advantage of scholarship money…for programs they design." Who could object to that?

Well, first, to get real about this, with there being around 50 million students in programs K through 12, that’s a gross of about $100 per student. The administrative costs of Medicaid, another federal program, like the DeVos proposal, largely administered by block grants to states, run about 5 percent.

If the DeVos grants have similar federal costs, the net available to states would be more like $95 per pupil. Each state will have its own similar administrative costs, as will each contact point in the awarding of the grants, among them the various scholarship evaluation committees and disbursing college administrations. What filters down to the scholarship student will likely be around $80.

Does anyone think this really matters much, one way or the other?

The proposal, whether one looks at it with a jaundiced liberal eye or a suspicious conservative eye (yes, many conservatives are upset about the DeVos proposal), is basically more fluff than real “and nothing to get hung about,” one way or the other.