Often, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s blatant incompetence blinds us from her awful underlying ideology. An education policy that puts school choice above high-quality neighborhood public schools hurts the most vulnerable students, creates public-private conflicts of interest and produces poor educational outcomes.
For just the next couple minutes, forget that DeVos thinks schools should have guns to “protect students from potential grizzlies” or that she doesn’t think it’s the federal government’s job to enforce the federal law mandating equal educational opportunity for disabled students. Forget that she doesn’t know the difference between proficiency and growth and that her family has never attended a public school or used public financial aid. Underlying those ridiculous gaps in competence is a scary, misguided reverence for school choice policy that will hurt New Haven students.
School choice gives parents the option to send their child to, say, a public charter school, instead of their neighborhood public school: New Haven’s Amistad Academy, for example, instead of Hillhouse High School. School vouchers, another type of school choice supported by DeVos and many Republicans, gives parents the opportunity to enroll their child in a private school, with their tuition subsidized by public dollars.
As fine as these ideas might sound on paper, the effects of these kinds of policies are toxic to the most vulnerable Americans, especially those who are low-income, black or Hispanic. Cities that choose school choice programs, like New Haven, almost always end up curtailing funding for neighborhood public schools in favor of district charter schools.
Think about it: What kinds of parents would choose to participate in a school choice program? Parents who have the cultural capital to navigate the complicated web of bureaucracy that is public education in America. In fact, in most cities with school choice, a wildly disproportionate number of white, middle- and high-income families participate in school choice in contrast to their black and Hispanic, low-income neighbors. That’s why charter schools in New Haven, like the Amistad Academy, have a disproportionate number of white and Asian students compared to the city average.
What kinds of parents don’t participate? Single parents, young parents, parents who work three jobs. Immigrant parents. Refugee parents. Non-English speaking parents. A current Yale student told me her family couldn’t participate in New Haven’s school choice program, for instance, solely because her parents could only speak Spanish, and New Haven’s official district publications only came in English. Students like her have no other choice but to attend their neighborhood public school — for this student, it was Hillhouse High School, which is majority-minority. While Amistad enjoys well-equipped classrooms and great teachers, chemistry classes of 30 students at Hillhouse share a total of two textbooks.
The fact is, at best, school choice policies let some students attend different schools. At worst, they effectively re-segregate schools. That’s the case in New Haven.
Things only get worse when for-profit charter schools come into play, which are not only more able to avoid complying with state educational standards (since they’re charters), but they also put profits above students.
DeVos, in all her brilliance, didn’t even try to hide that reality during her Senate confirmation hearing. If Betsy really believed that charter schools, even the for-profit ones, had the same educational interests as their neighborhood public school counterparts, she’d be in favor of holding those charter schools to the same achievement standards. Obviously. Right?
When asked by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., whether she supports holding charter schools to the same standards that neighborhood public schools are held, DeVos effectively said no.
And it’s not like school choice policies end up actually helping students. The Center for Public Education found that the vast majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools. Instead, school choice policies simply tip the educational funding balance in favor of wealthier, whiter families and against the families for whom a decent public education is more important.
Instead of waxing poetic about the joys of school choice and charter schools, DeVos and other Republicans need to join the rest of the country — students, parents, teachers — in fighting for great neighborhood public schools, no matter what ZIP code, no matter what average household income, no matter what race comprises a majority of the neighborhood.
The stakes are high. The truth is, if we get education policy right, if we give ourselves permission to think idealistically about public education, we solve a lot other problems. We increase the number of students who move on to appropriate post-secondary education, including four-year colleges. We reduce unemployment. And, most importantly, we protect the basic bargain of America: Everyone, no matter where they’re from, who works hard and plays by the rules should be able to get ahead. With DeVos in charge — and with a gang of Republicans to boot — that elusive bargain is in peril now more than ever.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .