School Vouchers: The Silver Bullet of America’s Education
Among the cadre of unqualified and poorly-chosen candidates that make up the Trump Administration’s cabinet, no appointment was more contentious, and perhaps consequential, then that of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos required the unprecedented services of Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate, proving that even a handful of Republicans held reservations of handing DeVos the keys to the Department of Education. A perfunctory scan of DeVos’ resume explains why: with no teaching or administrative experience to claim, DeVos’ ascendancy to the post derives from her experience as the steward of the DeVos family’s wealth in undermining America’s public school system by touting the implementation of school vouchers.
As the wife of Amway billionaire Dick DeVos, she helped underwrite the lobbying efforts and campaigns of Republicans in their efforts to enact deregulatory measures that led to a proliferation of unregulated charter schools in her home state of Michigan, many of which fall short of improving student achievement compared to their public counterparts. The cataclysmic growth of charter schools, 80 percent of which operate as for-profit institutions, also supplanted distressed public schools and quickly became the only option as opposed to an alternative one for many low-income Michigan students.
When the first results of Michigan’s charter experiment came to light, DeVos’ purchased political influence only served to further derail efforts by the legislature to provide basic oversight of charter schools, a concept that even Milton Friedman, often seen as a catalyst for the voucher movement with the publication of his pro-market edict The Role of Government in Education, deemed as necessary.
The marketing phenomena of school vouchers has had the luxury of being bolstered by think-tanks and well-funded advocacy efforts that disguise its true intent. At its inception, the call for vouchers was a reactionary movement, designed to reinstate the segregation of a pre-Brown vs Board of Education school system through alternative measures. As all good megadonors do, DeVos obfuscates her advocacy for educational reform as stemming from a concern for the plight of at-risk populations. In praxis, her feigned altruism seeks only to exploit education as the new frontier for free-market reform through the pervasive introduction of school vouchers.
. Among the most-cited voucher programs, namely that of Indiana and Louisiana, no real gains could be found in the progress of low-income students who utilized the voucher system. In some instances, those low-income students found themselves lagging in comparison to demographically similar students enrolled in public schools. When Indiana broadened its eligibility criteria for vouchers—an effort propelled by then-Governor Mike Pence—the demographics of recipients skewed toward middle class students, deviating from the very population school voucher advocates claim to represent.
The voucher system, like all free market-oriented reforms, possesses numerous inefficiencies and risks that may be acceptable when applied toward say, a retailer, but certainly not acceptable when the basic education of society is at stake. If a school chooses to accept vouchers but possesses few spaces, the selection of students relies on a lottery system, denying the equitable opportunity argument advanced by voucher advocates. Should a charter school close due to insufficient funds, it is the students who fall behind and lose options, while “charter chains” look to expand elsewhere.
Furthermore, private schools are not subject to critical federal provisions that restrict the usage of selective preferences based on religion or race. Empirical evidence of stratification has been demonstrated in studies that evaluated the programs of both Indiana and Louisiana, among others, who have implemented vouchers.
DeVos makes no effort to obscure her intent in expanding charter schools across the country. In a 2001 pitch to Christian donors, she singled out the education system as a method of “advancing God’s kingdom.” The movement’s marketing was simple: turn a profit while turning the country into a Christian theocracy. That religious-affiliated schools have benefitted tremendously from the implementation of school vouchers is no coincidence. In keeping with the tradition of her cabinet colleagues, DeVos’s position opens her up to numerous conflicts of interest. Outside of her blatant advancement of the school choice movement, DeVos recently divested from 102 companies that could pose a conflict, from a student loan debt collection company to a digital textbook developer. During her early tenure as Secretary of Education, the DeVos family recently increased its investment in a neurofeedback company that claims, with scant scientific evidence, to provide a solution to train individuals with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and depression to function better.
In Arizona, the legislature’s efforts to expand a voucher program to all students was blocked by the admirable efforts of grassroots groups, who successfully gathered enough signatures in the searing Phoenix heat to put the issue in front of voters. The referendum, known as Proposition 305, would only exacerbate a crippled education system that faces massive teacher shortages and falls far below the standards of the most economically powerful country in the world.
That Arizona’s legislators attempted to bypass the wills of voters is unsurprising. Plenty of conflict of interests remain at stake. In fact, a charter school co-founded by Republican State Senator Sylvia Allen, who chairs the state senate’s education committee, recently received an “F” rating by the Arizona Department of Education. Allen’s prior claim to fame included statements that recommend instituting mandatory church attendance and assess our planet’s age as being a youthful 6,000 years old. The religious furor that occupies the school voucher movement presents an existential threat to a secular educational opportunity for all students. In her capacity as Secretary of Education, DeVos serves not as an advocate for improving an education system that embarrassingly sits in the middle of OECD countries, but rather, continues her work as lobbyist for school choice. Just as Scott Pruitt of the EPA and Ryan Zinke of the Interior Department have been tapped to do, DeVos’ objective is to oversee the demise of her department, not empower it.
The appointment of DeVos is the manifest of the Trump Administration’s intention to subvert America’s public education. With the Trump Administration proposing a voucher expansion that is expected to cost nearly $20 billion, never has the time for protecting the most critical infrastructure of American society is more important. While far from perfect and in need of reform, the public education system is the last vehicle for effectual change. A comprehensive privatization effort would only mirror the results of DeVos’ brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who demonstrated the drastic effects of privatization in another domain.
An equitable, effective education system poses problems for those in power. An informed electorate is an inconvenience as they present an additional check on the powers of those who prefer distractions and divisions among the under-and middle-class.
DeVos’ appointment is revelatory in that, for the low, low price of just $200 million in political donations and lobbying efforts, you too could become the next U.S. Secretary of Education. But good luck getting there on a teacher’s salary.
Arman Sidhu is a public school teacher, freelance writer, and graduate student based in Phoenix, Arizona.