Public Schools, Charters and Vouchers: Why the Poor Lose No Matter What

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Oh, February. I love this month. Both Steve and Ash have birthdays this month. Valentine’s Day is this month. We usually get our tax return during this month. I have usually given up on my New Year’s Resolutions by this month, so I can finally relax again. But this February is different. This February has started off kind of….awful.

 

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Right now we are smack dab in the middle of Senate Confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet, and the name on everyone’s lips is Betsy DeVos. DeVos is Trump’s controversial pick for Education Secretary. She is so controversial, in fact, that her confirmation is hanging on the balance of just one Republican’s decision. As of right now, the Senate is at 50-50 on whether to confirm. Many of Trump’s cabinet choices have been controversial, but none have received as much attention as DeVos. According to NPR, there have been over 30,000 phone calls to Senate offices regarding DeVos and 1.5 million signatures on a Credo petition to deny her the job.

Why is she controversial? The obvious answer is her lack of experience. DeVos is a billionaire who has never worked in or with public schools, nor has she or her children ever attended public schools. Not ideal for someone who wants to lead the department that controls the public education system. She was embarrassingly unprepared for her confirmation hearings, struggling to answer simple questions about the difference between proficiency and growth, and being unaware that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law. She also refused to say whether or not she would protect individuals with disabilities during her leadership at the department.

She has been pushing for the expansion of charter schools and believes the voucher system to promote school choice is in the best interest of families. She also belongs and donates to several religious organizations, and has said that all schools, public and private, should embrace a Christianity-focused approach to education. If you’re familiar with the constitution, you know that the coveted Founding Fathers were very serious about the divide between church and state, and for DeVos to insist that public schools use Christianity as their guiding principles is in direct violation of the ol’ constitution, and frankly, is shitty for anyone in our country who isn’t a Christian. Which is over a third of the population, by the way, and increasing every year.

 

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If confirmed, she would also be in charge of managing student loan funds and financial assistance programs for higher education, to the tune of $150 billion. As DeVos did not use any financial aid for her own college education and neither did any of her children, a fact that Senator Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out during the hearings, she has very little knowledge or experience in federal financial aid.

Perhaps another reason DeVos is struggling to be confirmed is her conflicts of interest. 102 of them, to be exact. She is the only cabinet choice in recent history who did not complete her ethics forms prior to the hearings, which is imperative to the vetting process of a cabinet member, and records show she has a myriad of entanglements to financial institutions that would conflict with her work as Education Secretary. Yikes.

DeVos also gave over $200,000 to the RNC, millions to Super Pacs for Trump’s campaign as well as other senators in 2016 alone, and over the years has donated funds directly to many of the Senators who will be voting on her confirmation. In 1997, DeVos is quoted as saying “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence… They are right. We do expect something in return.” That sounds a lot like bribery…I mean, a lot. Am I misinterpreting this? I don’t feel like I am. I mean, it’s bribery, right? It’s fucking bribery. Does anyone care about bribery? BRIBERY IS STILL FROWNED UPON, RIGHT?! HELLO?!

 

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Anywho, that’s a long list of issues, and many of these worries span across the aisle. Democrat and Republican leaders have expressed doubt about her ability to lead the department. Another reason to be worried about DeVos is her unwavering support of charter schools and insistence on dismantling the current public education system. One that is not perfect, by any means, but so far seems to be our best bet for educating our kids. It’s weird to me, that Trump has chosen so many people in his cabinet to run departments that they have all expressed interest in shutting down. That’s weird to me. I wish I knew why…

If you don’t know (and I didn’t up until very recently), charter schools are alternative K-12 schools that have less regulation and more freedom than public schools when it comes to their curriculum, teachers and staff. According to Great Schools, charter schools are independently run and can even be owned by for-profit companies. (Yikes.) Charter schools also get funding from the federal government, but it is typically not enough or as much as public schools get and they must use outside sources to make up the rest.

The allure of charter schools is their flexibility. Educators can tailor their curriculum to their students. They are not bound by the regulations and norms we have come to know from public schools. Like public schools, charters are tuition free, but unlike public schools who must accept every student who resides within the school’s zone, charter schools can be more selective and often use a lottery system to determine the students who are accepted.

Charter schools must reach certain academic objectives in order to stay open, which are outlined in the school’s contract, or charter. This means that charter schools typically focus on college preparedness and subject mastery to attain student achievement.

Official studies done on charter schools have, so far, yielded mixed results. Some studies have found that charter school education has improved test scores and achievements for minorities and low income students. Other studies have found that charter schools have not yielded any better results than public schools, and many others have found students actually perform worse. More research needs to be done on the effectiveness of charter schools before we can conclude if they help or hinder a child’s education as a whole when compared to public school curriculum and structure. Suffice it to say that some people swear by their charter school and some people could take it or leave it, not unlike public schools.

Opponents of charter schools say that funneling funds into charters takes more money away from public schools whose budgets are already shrinking. They also say that since charter schools are independently owned and operated, they can discriminate against students as they see fit. And some believe that a lack of regulation and accountability is a bad thing for students, not a plus. It is also argued that specialized schools attract high income families who are willing to donate more money to the charters instead of investing in public schools. Others argue that charter schools that have arts or science-based programs can siphon high performing students from public schools, thus lowering achievement and overall test scores and removing even more funding.

Parents who wish to enroll their child in a charter school for a different kind of education can take their funding with them, should they get accepted. DeVos has been a proponent of charter schools for a long time. During his campaign, Trump echoed that sentiment and said that parents need more choices for the type of education their children receive.

Enter the vouchers program. This is the idea Trump and DeVos have advocated for to give every student a chance, in their opinion, at the best possible education. The main idea is this: Give every student a voucher for a specific amount of money. Some of the money from these vouchers is paid from the taxes they already paid to fund public schools, some of it is from the federal government, and the rest from the states. Parents can use those funds to choose which school their children attend based on their own needs and objectives. The money can be used for an education at a public or charter school, but they can also use it to enroll their child in a private or religious school. This is seen as a yuuuge benefit for low-income families who normally couldn’t afford to send their children to private schools. That sounds pretty fucking awesome to me.

Vouchers also help parents who want their child to have a faith-based education but can’t afford to pay tuition. The tuition for religious schools is much lower than private schools due to outside funding and tax subsidies, but there is still a price, unlike tuition-free public schools. Unfortunately for these people, many states have what are called Blaine Amendments, which say that by law taxes and federal monies CANNOT be used to fund religious schools. That’s going to be a huge problem should the voucher system be implemented. It would mean that each state with a Blaine Amendment must vote to remove it in order for its residents to use their vouchers for religious schools. That would be a huge blow to people like DeVos, who advocate a Christian education for all.

On the surface, the voucher system seems pretty good. Who doesn’t want more freedom when it comes to their child’s education? Many people believe the public school system is inherently broken (they’re mostly right) and that having more choices means more opportunities for their kids.

Here’s the problem with Trump’s voucher program: We can’t afford it. Trump has said that he would take $20 billion from current education funding and use it to fund the voucher program. $20 billion sounds like a lot of fucking money, but it’s not: In order for the plan to work, Trump admitted that the states would collectively need to pony up an additional $110 billion to fully fund the program. What’s more, even with the program being fully funded, each child would get a voucher for about $12,000. That seems like a lot. Except that it’s not. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, private school tuition in our country averages about $19,000 per year. This, however, can vary by region. For example, in the south, the cost can be as low as $14,000 per year, but travel further north and many of the private school costs climb up past $35,000 per year. Travel to the west coast from California to Alaska, and you’re looking at upwards of $30,000 per year.

 

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So let’s say you decide to use your vouchers for a private school. Unless you live in the deep south, your tuition vouchers will barely even cover half of one year’s tuition at one of those private schools. You would have to make up the difference somehow. I don’t know about you, but coming up with an extra $45,000+ per year to get my kids into private schools just isn’t gonna happen, and we are in a pretty good financial position. What does that mean for low-income families? It means private schools are once again, out of reach, and they are forced to go wherever $12,000 will get them. The poor lose in that situation.

But let’s look at the alternative. Poor families aren’t getting a first class education in the public school system, either. Under-performing schools can lose funding and close their doors. Many of these schools are in poor neighborhoods and/or inner cities. Neighborhoods that reside in those areas typically don’t get as much funding through property taxes as schools in higher income areas. The teachers are paid less. There aren’t as many extra-curricular activities. Their equipment and supplies are outdated. They have limited access to technology. They don’t get a lot of donations from parents, which can make or break a school’s success. Their fundraisers yield very little in the way of discretionary spending. Low income families can’t afford to donate a bunch of money for an arts program, laptops, or a school psychologist like a higher income family can. They need all of their money to feed their families and keep the lights on.

It is also less likely for schools in low income areas to have a lot of parent involvement. My kids’ school has so many parent volunteers that there’s a fucking lottery for who gets to chaperone the field trips. I’m not joking. We have to use sign-up genius for all volunteer opportunities and it fills up faster than a Saturday morning farmer’s market in a gentrified neighborhood. You see, poor families don’t have the luxury of taking time off work to volunteer at their child’s school. Many are families where both parents are working full time, taking multiple jobs just to survive, often with long hours and physically demanding work. They’re exhausted. They don’t have time to be a fucking art docent for second graders. There’s nothing that screams ‘upper-class white people’ like an art docent program. Well, maybe a Saturday morning farmer’s market in a gentrified neighborhood.

 

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What’s more, parents can’t just enroll their children in high performing schools if they want them to get a better education. They are forced to go to the school they are zoned for, and only under extreme circumstances will they get a choice of public school, AND only if space provides. What does that mean for poor families who live in poor neighborhoods with under-funded public schools? They lose.

“Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to U.S. Department of Education. Lower spending can irreparably damage a child’s future, especially for kids from poor families. A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending a year for poor children can lead to an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.”

From Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School

Awesome. Families unlucky enough to fall under those circumstances can look forward to irreparably damaging their child’s future, and they often have no control over the situation. Getting into a better school means moving into a nicer neighborhood, which means increasing the cost of housing exponentially. Recently, we bought a home in a nice neighborhood that cost almost twice as much as our previous home and has 75% less land, with only a few hundred feet difference in the square footage. All because we crossed city limits into a city with great schools and ridiculously high property taxes. If you are barely able to make ends meet in the first place, you are not in a position to move to a better neighborhood anytime soon. You’re stuck.

So there you have it. Regardless of the current choices in education policy, upper-middle class people are always on top, and the poor are always at the bottom. This can be attributed to many factors, but the biggest issue, in my opinion, is that public education is only funded at 8 to 9 percent by the federal government. The rest is up to the states and cities managing the public schools. Where you live will determine your educational opportunities for life. The government seems to have a mostly hands-off approach to public education, except when a President decides that the system is broken and implements a program that they are certain will fix it and make America more educated and competitive in the global economy. Think Title I, No Child Left Behind, or Common Core. The success of these programs is widely debated, yet every decade or so someone decides public education needs to be reformed, but little has changed for the poor over the years.

The idea that public education should be a right has been fought in and out of court many times since our country’s founding, and is still in fact disagreed upon, even to this day. In the 19th century, one of the most prominent debates of the time was whether or not access to education should be free. The people pushing for reform ended up winning, but in 1973 the Supreme Court ruled that while children were entitled to free education under the Constitution, they were not entitled to the same amount of funding for the quality of their education. It was, again, left up to the states and local municipalities to determine the type of education their students received. From the Atlantic:

“Indeed, the United States is one of the only countries that allows the economies of local areas to determine the quality of local schools.”

The fact is that funding in public schools may always be contentious, but studies have shown that states that funnel extra money to under-performing and low income schools have increased the quality of education that students receive and given them better lives in the form of more opportunities for growth and achievement. I don’t know about you, but evidence like that seems pretty compelling. If we can pony up a bit more federal money for local schools that really need it (and why not, if we can build a fucking wall), the quality of education and by extension, life, will improve for millions of families nationwide.

But Betsy DeVos doesn’t want to hear that. Betsy DeVos wants to send kids to charter and religious schools. She even believes that the country would benefit from abolishing child labor laws. You read that right. DeVos thinks we should send our kids to work in the mines and factories, and even fast food restaurants to give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Ah, yes, there’s nothing like a little Black Lung to give you real purpose in your life.

I hope the Senate does not confirm Mrs. DeVos for Education Secretary, but the chances are slim. It’s kind of hard to turn your back on the person who gave you tens of thousands of dollars to get elected. According to DeVos herself, they owe her a favor.

 

 

 

 

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