Recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has placed “school choice” programs at the forefront of her plans for education in the United States. School choice, laconically, allows parents to choose alternatives to the public school their child is zoned for. These alternatives include private, charter, virtual or magnet schools. On paper, school choice easily appears to be an ideal approach to education. When put into action, however, it is not nearly as effective as DeVos claims it to be.
DeVos also advocates for school vouchers, which are state-funded scholarships students may use to pay to attend a private school rather than a public school. This reallocation of funds has the potential to be detrimental to public schools in America. Private schools receive money through sources such as hefty tuitions and private donors, whereas public schools rely solely on government funding. This leads to the perpetuation of low-income communities, allowing already poorly funded public schools to lose money to school vouchers, thus further hindering the opportunities of students who do not have the privilege of choosing a different school.
School choice poses serious threats towards already disadvantaged students. While many believe it is the duty of a student’s parents to enroll their child in a successful school, families of lower socioeconomic status are, realistically, unlikely to have that choice. Low-income families often rely on school busses to get their child to and from school every day, a service many private schools do not provide. Assuming they are able to acquire transportation, most low-income families, even with the prospect of vouchers (the average ranging from $2,000 to $5,000), will not be able to afford private school tuition. DeVos’ duty is to implement objective policies that promote higher education for all students, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.
School choice, it seems, doesn’t actually give everyone a choice.
You may be wondering, why attack school choice before we’ve tried it? Shouldn’t we give it a chance? We did, and it failed. DeVos has strongly supported Michigan’s charter and Christian school systems, which serve as a prime example of how school choice is likely to pan out for the rest of the United States. Her family has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to charter schools in her home state of Michigan, which one could justify if these schools were performing exceptionally well. Unfortunately for DeVos, test scores consistently show that Michigan charter schools are underperforming severely. In recent years, Hope Academy, a charter school in Grand Rapids, received one of the lowest rankings in Michigan, scoring in the first percentile. Despite this, their charter was renewed. Oregon senator Jeff Merkley recently spoke out against Michigan’s failing school system, stating Woodward Academy, a charter school in Detroit, “has bumped along at the bottom of school achievement since 1998 … while its operator, despite running an abysmal school … was allowed to expand and run other schools.” These two schools unfortunately represent the reality of countless of other critically flawed charter schools in Michigan.
While it is undeniable a change in our approach to public education needs to be made, DeVos’ strategy is out of touch with reality. School choice comes at a serious cost to students of low socioeconomic status, while providing little in return for America’s education system. Due to DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan suffers from failing charter schools that cannot be effectively improved or shut down. If she is able to follow through with implementing school choice and voucher programs on a nationwide scale, it is likely we will see the struggles of Michigan schools mirrored across the country.