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Will Betsy DeVos Divide the School Choice Movement?

By Jeffrey R. Henig — January 17, 2017 5 min read

Donald Trump’s election to be the 45th president of the United States gives a huge boost to the movement for school choice—but may also foreshadow its undoing.

For 25 years, proponents of school choice have promoted two mechanisms: education vouchers and charter schools. Vouchers, which direct public funds to private schools to help cover tuition, are the more politically fraught of the two. Both options provide alternatives to a local public school, but charter schools are public schools—privately managed, but authorized by and ultimately accountable to government agencies. This has given them broader bipartisan appeal than vouchers.

While voucher and charter school proponents have historically been allies linked by providing greater choice, the political alliance between them might be fraying. The election of Trump, who is a major voucher supporter, provides an opening that critics of market-based education—critics who instead advocate for traditional public schools with effective government oversight—can exploit.

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Expanded school choice was one of the few specifics that President-elect Trump offered during his campaign about how he would improve U.S. schools. He proposed $20 billion in federal grants to vastly expand the number of voucher schools on the condition that states and localities kick in another $110 billion from their own revenues. Trump further signaled his intentions by nominating Betsy DeVos, a prominent promoter of enhanced parental choice through both vouchers and charters, to be his secretary of education. The stage seems set for both vouchers and charter schools to grow, likely at the expense of traditional public schools.

But voucher proponents have lost national debates about school choice in the past. President Ronald Reagan twice failed to get Congress to approve a national voucher law, and Republicans in Congress couldn’t persuade President George W. Bush to include vouchers in the No Child Left Behind Act when it was passed in 2001. Many Americans think vouchers threaten the traditional vision of public “common schooling” because of their potential to redirect government dollars to private schools—ones that can be less racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. Still others worry that vouchers’ use for religious schools could lead to undesirable entanglement between church and state.

Because of this resistance, voucher proponents jumped on the charter school bandwagon in the early 1990s. Many aligned themselves with charters—which spread rapidly during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, as well as that of President Barack Obama—to make inroads for market-based ideas in education and to build a future political constituency. Charters are supported primarily by public tax revenues and state law typically bars them from charging tuition or refusing admission based on family background, school mission, or students’ academic preparation. Yet they also are run by private boards; are exempt from many regulations that regular public schools must follow; usually hire non-unionized teachers; and win funds based on the number of students.

Many charter supporters are uncomfortable with the pure market rationale behind vouchers."

Charter proponents, who believed themselves David confronting the Goliath of union-backed traditional public education, welcomed the political and philanthropic support of the pro-voucher forces.

But fault lines underlie the alliance. Many charter supporters are uncomfortable with the pure market rationale behind vouchers, which trusts that competition among schools will be enough to ensure the improvement of their quality. Steve Wilson, the founder and CEO of the New York City-based Ascend charter network, recently expressed his belief that many charter supporters and founders are “deeply troubled by the idea of vouchers.”

“I would venture most charter school founders are liberal Democrats who are committed to social justice and would be very troubled by free-market mechanisms,” he said.

Instead, many charter supporters value government oversight, especially given the poor performance and outright corruption of choice systems in some states—including minimally regulated school choice programs like Michigan’s, which DeVos fought to protect. And while charter school leaders celebrate the idea of many small entrepreneurial schools competing with one another, in practice they often prefer working with large charter management organizations and urban districts that want to diversify the portfolio of schools, rather than offer services to millions of voucher families.

On the other side, the pro-voucher Roman Catholic Church hopes public funding could revive falling enrollments in its parochial schools. The church views tuition-free charters—especially those that emphasize order and discipline—as competition.

Charter and voucher advocates have fought the common enemy of traditional public schools, but they may turn on one another if Trump and DeVos push to expand the voucher system. Robert C. Enlow, the president and CEO of the pro-voucher lobby EdChoice has already called for expansion of the federally funded voucher program for low-income families in the District of Columbia. That program provides vouchers worth over $8,000 per child per year, so charter supporters should worry that after voucher funding is doled out, they might be left with only financial crumbs.

In recent years, traditional public school districts that once strictly assigned most families to a single-zoned school have quietly added other options, often including charters. If advocates of democratically controlled common schools can swallow their fear that any embrace of choice will lead to privatization, they may be able to expand their impact. By openly welcoming supporters of well-regulated, socially inclusive, and democratically responsive charters, they can ally with choice proponents alarmed at the prospect of massive voucher schemes.

Will the longtime alliance between charter and voucher advocates unravel? Supporters of democratically controlled public education might find this a good time to tug at the thread.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Will Betsy DeVos Divide the School Choice Movement?

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