Understanding the new school choice push
Monday, March 06, 2017
President Donald Trump’s announcement of a broader school choice initiative has baffled many. While some cited it as highly unusual, others have said that his support for school choice is not groundbreaking.
He called upon Congress to pass an education bill that would fund school choice across states. His idea is to empower disadvantaged youth from lower-income families so that they have more options than just public schools.
While Trump mentioned African-American and Latino children, the program would be open to any child in households close to the poverty line. Students in these homes would now have the option to choose from public, charter, private, magnet, religious or home schools.
On paper, this doesn’t sound too bad. So why is there so much opposition to it? To answer that question, we need to understand the concept and our education system.
One of the first issues that concerns everyone is funding for the program. K through 12 public schools have been facing severe fund shortages for years now.
Despite efforts and attempts at reforms, we still have a long way to go to ensure adequate funding for every student. Clearly, we cannot dip into the dwindling federal education budget to fund school choice. Trump touched on Florida's tax credit scholarship program to address the funding concern.
Unlike voucher programs, where tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools, the scholarship tax credit program bypasses state coffers and instead uses a corporation or individual’s donations to a nonprofit scholarship organization.
The money is then used to fund students for scholarships into a school of their choice, while the donors get tax credits. The program also aims to bypass common constitutional challenges to school choice, since it is no longer directing public money to religiously based organizations.
In Florida, the school choice program is apparently popular, and about 92,000 students received scholarships in the 2015-16 school year. The recipients were mostly economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students, and the scholarships are used towards religious, primarily Christian, schools.
This program was vetted and ranked high by the American Federation for Children, which was, until recently, chaired by current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Despite this, the program has faced harsh criticisms. The Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, in cooperation with the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and other groups, previously sued to challenge the program.
They argued that the program not only violates the students’ right to a uniform education, it also disregards the strict accountability rules for teachers that public schools face. Though their suit has been dismissed by the courts, their arguments are still popular.
Others, like Stanford University’s Martin Carnoy, call the tax credit program a con job. Experts like him feel that the program may ostensibly seek to empower students and parents with educational choice, but, in reality, does nothing to help kids.
Carnoy also cites the voucher program, a common measure in school choice intiatives, as one that has failed to live up to the expectations. Extensive research has shown that privatizing education with taxpayer dollars have led to minimal student benefits.
The need of the hour is to stem the diversion of public funding to private schools, not the opposite. Instead, we should continue to focus on investing in tools and resources that will improve student learning across the board.
Energy and investment should be geared towards early childhood education, teacher training, after-school and summer programs, STEM curricula, and improved student health and nutrition programs. These are all efforts that have yielded higher payoffs for all students. The administration’s staunch advocacy for private and religious education may help some, but will harm the masses.
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