DeVos Might Not Force Private School Vouchers on States -- But She Could Promote Them

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Betsy DeVos appears before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension for her confirmation hearing. 

In 1997, when Arizona launched the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship program, allowing individuals to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits offering private school tuition grants, legislative aides estimated it would cost the state $4.5 million annually. By the 2015-16 school year, the yearly cost of the program had grown to more than $140 million, even though private school enrollment was actually below its 1997 levels.

Florida launched the nation’s second tax-credit private school voucher program in 2001, with a cap of $50 million. Today the program tops out at $559,000,000 annually, and will increase to $699,000,000 in the next fiscal year.

Pennsylvania’s tax-credit school voucher program, also launched in 2001, was originally capped at $30 million. Designed to provide tuition assistance to private schools, pre-K programs, and “innovative” public school initiatives, it now hits $175 million annually.

Tomorrow the Senate will hold its final vote on Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the federal education department, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has spent decades advocating for charter schools, private schools, and virtual education. No other Trump appointee has faced the same magnitude of opposition, with hundreds of thousands of Americans calling, emailing, and faxing their senators in protest.

Though it’s widely expected that she’ll be confirmed on Tuesday, the past few months of anti-DeVos campaigning have created some new fault lines within education reform coalitions. In addition to labor unions and civil rights groups, more liberal school choice organizations, like Democrats for Education Reform and Education Trust, have lined up against DeVos’s nomination. Billionaire Eli Broad, who funds charter schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and other cities, penned a letter last week against his fellow billionaire education reform champion. On the other hand, Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, has emerged as one of DeVos’s most ardent supporters.

One major concern critics have voiced about DeVos is whether she will use her federal perch to push school privatization. She’s referred to the public education system as a “dead end” and has neither attended a public school, nor worked in one. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos has spent years (unsuccessfully) pushing private school vouchers, and has funded voucher efforts in other states.

Though DeVos has promised she would not “force” voucher programs on states, there are other ways she could support their growth if she’s confirmed as education secretary. She might get behind what’s known as “Title I portability”—a policy that would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow them to the public or private school of their choice. At $14.5 billion annually, Title I is the federal government’s largest program for K-12 students. Some congressional Republicans tried to include Title I portability in the federal education law that passed in 2015, but Barack Obama said he’d veto any bill that contained it. Democrats and Obama’s administration maintained that such a policy would significantly harm poor students by directing federal funds away from high-poverty school districts.

Title I is likely to come up again, given that in early January Donald Trump tapped Rob Goad, a senior education adviser to Representative Luke Messer of Indiana, to join his administration. Messer is known as one of the most vocal Congressional advocates for Title I portability, and Goad will serve as the key education expert on Trump’s White House Domestic Policy Council. A DeVos-backed Title I portability amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act could win congressional approval unless Senate Democrats successfully filibuster it.

DeVos is also likely to support states establishing education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, as well as private school tuition. In December, right-leaning education reformers gathered together in Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education advocacy group on whose board Betsy DeVos served until recently. At the conference leaders spoke animatedly about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in every state across the country.

Noting the liberal opposition to DeVos’s nomination, some education analysts have suggested that private school vouchers are unlikely to expand beyond conservative legislators and red states. However, the reality is that private school voucher programs are often pushed in blue cities and purple suburbs—where a plethora of religious schools are located. In fact, it’s Republican-leaning rural areas that tend to have some of the greatest opposition to private school vouchers, given their scant school options.

Indeed Maryland, a blue state that went for Hillary Clinton by 26 points, established its first private school voucher program last year, appropriating $5 million to the effort. While school voucher initiatives are often pitched as vehicles to help poor, black students escape their local public schools, data from the first year of Maryland’s program reveal that more private school vouchers went to white students than black students, and 78 percent of the 2,464 vouchers issued went to students who were already enrolled in private schools. Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan says he wants to double the funding for the voucher program over the next three years.

“In Maryland, no one has lobbied harder or been more excited about Governor Hogan’s voucher program than religious schools,” says Sean Johnson, the legislative and political director for the Maryland State Education Association. “Despite the rhetoric you hear on vouchers from President Trump, Governor Hogan, and Betsy DeVos, vouchers are less about moving kids from public schools and more about moving taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools. We can’t afford to fund two different school systems—public taxpayer dollars should be spent improving our public schools, not subsidizing expensive private schools.” Meredith Curtis of the Maryland ACLU says what’s happening in Maryland is similar to what’s happened in other states, where private school voucher programs start out small, but continue to steadily grow, even as public school budgets are cut.

“Maryland public schools have tremendous needs that need to be addressed by the state, but we have no promises from the governor to meet those urgent needs, and yet he proposes increasing funding to religious schools,” Curtis says. “What we’ve seen in other states is that once allocations for vouchers are set in place, they just continue to increase, but there’s no accountability for benchmarks to compare the quality of education. We support [the right of] private schools to set their own curriculums, but we object to publicly funding [them].”

Assessing the educational value of private school voucher programs has been difficult. As Erin Richards details in The American Prospect’s most recent issue, Wisconsin, which launched the nation’s first private school voucher program 27 years ago, still lacks high-quality data for assessing performance, and still lacks robust mechanisms to hold private schools that receive public dollars accountable.

DeVos, congressional Republicans, and a host of GOP governors around the country may be enthusiastic about increasing the number of students enrolled in private schools, but public support for such policies is actually falling. According to an annual poll conducted by Harvard’s Education Next journal, nationwide support for vouchers targeted at low-income students fell from 55 percent to 43 percent between 2012 and 2016, and support for universal vouchers fell from 56 percent to 50 percent.

If private school vouchers become increasingly associated with Donald Trump, the nation’s staggeringly unpopular new president, then public support for vouchers may fall further yet. 

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