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Monday, 20 November 2017 07:41

Don't Look Now, but Betsy DeVos's Private School Voucher Project Is Steaming Along

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Betsy 1120wrp optBetsy DeVos at CPAC. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)This is being written before a final vote has been taken on President Trump's higher-taxes-for-the-middle-class-and-the-poor bill has been voted on, so as of now, there hasn't been much in the way of legislation for the Trump administration to hang its hat on. But downstream, there are lots of awful things underway. To paraphrase an old Henny Youngman tag line: Take the work of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. … Please!

In her first few months as secretary, the Michigan billionaire, DeVos, who needed the vote of vice-president Mike Pence to break the tie in the Senate over her confirmation, has been involved in several controversial battles over the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Title IX, guns in the schools, rolling back regulations on the for-profit college industry, and her efforts to shrink the Dept. of Education.

According to The Washington Post's Moriah Balingit and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, "The department's workforce has shrunk under … DeVos, who has said she wants to decrease the federal government's role in education, including investigations and enforcement of civil rights in schools. In all, the department has shed about 350 workers since December — nearly 8 percent of its staff — including political appointees. With buyouts offered to 255 employees in recent days, DeVos hopes to show even more staff the door."

But DeVos' most cherished project is using government money to pay for private school vouchers. As The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss recently pointed out "DeVos has worked patiently for decades — repeat, decades — to promote the expansion of charter schools and the growth of programs that use public money to pay for public and private education. She didn't stop when progress was slow, or nonexistent. She kept going, year after year. It was and is her life's work."

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As Liz Hayes reported in Americans United for Separation of Church and State's Wall of Separation blog, "The Department of Education recently released a proposed strategic plan that prioritizes what programs the department will fund through discretionary grants. The number one priority? 'Educational choice,' which includes private school vouchers. That's right – the top priority isn't supporting public schools, it's finding ways to send money to private schools."

A comment submitted by Americans United read: "We oppose private school vouchers because they divert public dollars to fund predominately religious schools, fail to provide students with better educational outcomes, deny students civil rights and constitutional protections, and lack accountability to taxpayers."

In a separate posting, Hayes described some of Trump's nominees to serve as DeVoss' assistants, as "school voucher advocates." According to Hayes, "Brig. Gen. Mitchell 'Mick' Zais, Trump's nominee for deputy secretary of education, and James Blew, the nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, are both school voucher proponents. Yet both stumbled over basic questions about vouchers and neither knew how to respond to the facts regarding 'dismal voucher results.'"

 

In addition to being a voucher proponent, "Zais' tenure as South Carolina's elected state superintendent of education was marked by controversial, conservative stances. He supported legislation that would have opened the door to the teaching of creationism and introduction of a pro-gun curriculum," Wall of Separation's Hayes reported. "He opposed a bill that would have expanded sex education in high schools because he thought it would 'weaken abstinence-based education.' He also advocated for private school vouchers and helped to pass a tax credit voucher program."

James Blew "spent nearly a decade as the director of K-12 reform for the Walton Family Foundation – a pro-voucher organization that has donated millions to Alliance for School Choice, which DeVos chaired until her appointment as secretary of education," according to Hayes.

The "dismal voucher results" Hayes was referring to were studies cited in a February piece in The New York Times headlined "Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins." After sketching out a brief history of voucher advocacy – they emerged fully formed from a single, brilliant essay published in 1955 by Milton Friedman, the free-market godfather later to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics – Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at New America, wrote that several voucher studies have found the project wanting for success.

Researchers using "data to compare voucher students with similar children who took the same tests in public schools," found little to no improvement in voucher schools. According to Carey:

Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state's governor. "In mathematics," they found, "voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement." They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana's voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

In June, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice released another study. Carey pointed out that "The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. 'Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,' the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math."

During his hearing, Zais insisted that school vouchers resulted in "improved outcomes." When confronted by Senator Al Franken about studies that revealed poor results for vouchers, Zais said that his "improved outcomes" assessment was "anecdotal."

Despite so-called anecdotal evidence, DeVos is pushing ahead with school vouchers. And there is no sign, that despite vigorous opposition, that she is going to give up her position. "As education secretary, she can go wherever she wants, and, even if she is confronted with protests (as she usually is), she can espouse her vision of education in America," Strauss reported. "DeVos is also a deeply religious person, and she may see it as her duty to stay on this mission that she has chosen as her life's work."