Betsy DeVos and the State of Education in America

How DeVos might change the educational system

Regardless of your familiarity with the debate over public education in the U.S., chances are you witnessed the contentious confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

A billionaire philanthropist and longtime Republican fundraiser, DeVos was confirmed by the fewest votes of any other Cabinet secretary in U.S. history: by a single vote, cast by Vice President Mike Pence.

DeVos is a long-time advocate of expanding school choice, a mode of educational reform that lies at the heart of the controversy over her nomination. Not sure what that means? We break down what it is, and why it matters, below.

School Choice

School choice is a broad term for a number of different proposals that would make it easier for parents to use public money to send their child to the school of their choice. This is instead of following the public school tradition of being assigned to a school based on where you live. Educational vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, magnet schools, and charter schools are all elements of the movement for expanded school choice.

In this regard, DeVos is an ideal match for President Trump’s education platform. While campaigning, he called for a $20 billion initiative to support school choice.

It seems that school choice sounds innocuous and promising, but critics argue that it undermines America’s public school system.

It’s also unclear where funding for this program would come from.

Educational Vouchers

Giving parents vouchers to send their kids to whatever school suits them best, whether public, private, charter, homeschool, or other learning environment, is one of the best known examples of school choice. Educational vouchers take the estimated $10,615 it costs to send a child to public school and lets parents use it at a school of their choosing, whether that’s the neighborhood public school, a private school, or a charter.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are, putting it simply, public schools that are privately run. But unlike public schools, which are managed federally, charter schools are operated by non-profits or for-profit companies. As such, they are not subject to the same regulations, apart from standardized tests, as district schools, which means their class size and curriculum can vary.

Tax Credit Programs

Many have pointed to Florida’s tax credit program — through which 92,000 students received scholarships last year —as a model for what DeVos might enact as part of the school choice initiative.

These tax credit programs would differ from voucher programs in that the funds would not go through the state at all (which can create issues if the state-funded dollars funnel into a religious school.)

Instead, individuals or corporations donate to a private, nonprofit scholarship organization. This offsets any tax liabilities; and the money can be given to families to for private school tuition.

Pro vs. Con

Views on school choice tend to be strong and divergent. Advocates like DeVos see it as a way to help disadvantaged children, particularly those in poor urban areas, gain access to higher quality education.

Opponents argue that they hurt public school students because the money (that going to charter schools and potentially paid out in vouchers) comes from the same pot as the funds for public schools, so by helping some students, school choice could be taking away from others.

Past Performance

DeVos’ work in her home state of Michigan, where she was the chair of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice advocacy group, offers us a look at what kinds of programs she may endorse at the federal level.

Michigan boasts one of the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools. But many of those charter schools have test scores below the state average in math and reading; they also serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. Also troubling: voucher schools are legally able to avoid providing adequate resources for disabled students.

Critics also say that charter schools and vouchers could be potentially dangerous for isolated rural areas that not only receive less federal funding than their urban counterparts, but who depend primarily on public schools because they are the only option for many rural communities.

Another criticism is that charter schools stand to bankrupt public schools, especially those that are already struggling financially. And, because vouchers vary by state and school, they do not always cover the full cost of tuition, which can be an additional burden for low-income families, the very ones advocates argue vouchers may benefit from most.

While it’s unclear what DeVos will accomplish as secretary, she will undoubtedly impact education policy in America. What are your thoughts on DeVos’ confirmation? Tell us in the comments.