Betsy DeVos believes charter schools and vouchers will improve education—but will they?
The express commitment of the incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to expand school choice options for American schoolchildren has thrust charter schools and voucher programs to the fore of education debates in the U.S. Over the years the DeVos family charitable foundation has donated some $10 million to organizations promoting the school choice agenda, both through the expansion of charter schools and the introduction of school vouchers to allow students to spend public funds on any school that would take them, whether public or private. While in the United States, voucher programs remain rare (the voucher campaign the DeVos family supported in Michigan lost resoundingly), charter schools have many advocates and have gained a lot of traction in recent years.
The DeVos family is only one of many wealthy families promoting charter schools (and school vouchers) as antidotes to what they perceive as a failing public system.
Publicly funded, but privately managed, charter schools are so named because they negotiate charters with local school districts that specify agreements about requirements, funding, curriculum, and oversight. Many of the original charter schools were organized by parents in school districts who were dissatisfied with the education their children were receiving. Today, school districts may sponsor an expanded role for charter schools by encouraging charter school expansion and making funds available to those who wish to run them.
The DeVos family is only one of many wealthy families promoting charter schools (and school vouchers) as antidotes to what they perceive as a failing public system. Large, politically conservative foundations, including the Walton Foundation (from the Walmart stores fortune), the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Adolph Coors Foundation, have poured millions of dollars into promoting charter schools, as have a number of billionaire hedge fund managers. All claim that they are trying to provide options for families, but many suspect that the real motive of many advocates is to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education. Over the last three decades, many large school districts, faced with depressing student performance results, have expanded charter school options, including in cities like Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.
In the 1980s, school reformers like John Chubb and Terry Moe argued that it was immoral to keep children in failing schools. They foresaw a time when parents would be free to choose from among a variety of schools in the public and private sectors. They blamed school administrators for stifling the public schools by insisting on conformity. For them, school choice meant the power to innovate and respond effectively to children’s educational needs based on the aligned commitment of parents, teachers, and administrators. Advocates believe that parents will not allow their students to remain in dysfunctional schools and, when given a choice from a large enough menu, will find schools that are the right fit for their children.
Overall, studies have come to mixed conclusions about whether private school subsidies and voucher programs led to educational improvements.
Evidence on the relative merits of school choice programs is available from other countries who have experimented with them, the most comprehensive trial occurring in Chile in the 1980s and 1990s. In this instance vouchers were given to parents and could be used at private or public schools. Many students from all classes shifted to private schools, but the higher the income level of the family the more likely they were to use vouchers for private schooling. Three-quarters of families in the top income quintile enrolled children in private schools, compared to one-quarter of families from the bottom two quintiles. Costs of transportation and limits on information about private schools led to less participation of the poor. The economist Martin Carnoy concluded: “Higher income groups take advantage of private alternatives . . . and (have the) ability to access schools where average achievement is higher.”
Overall, studies have come to mixed conclusions about whether private school subsidies and voucher programs led to educational improvements in the South American countries that have experimented with them. In a study of ten South American countries, students in private schools consistently performed better than students in public schools. However, when researchers statistically controlled for both individual socioeconomic status and the higher status of peers found in private schools, the private school effect across the ten countries averaged zero. Students in a few countries showed small positive effects for attending private schools, and others showed small negative effects. The debate about privatization thus continues.
Some studies in Africa and South Asia find that students’ performance in private schools is significantly better, even after statistical controls are introduced to isolate the effect of school attended from family background and academic aptitude. Others find no difference after statistical controls are introduced and argue that a first priority of governments should be to provide free, high-quality education to all students through the public system.
A comparative perspective of the trajectories of China and India seems to support this latter conclusion. Both countries had low primary school enrollments in the mid-20th century. At that time China began investing heavily in public primary schools, while India concentrated on building a first-rate higher education system. In the elementary and secondary school grades, India allowed private providers to fill part of the gap left by policymakers’ priorities for spending public dollars on postsecondary education. The result was that the average years of education for school-age children in China increased from 3.2 years in 1964 to 7.7 years in 2000, while the average years for Indian children increased much more slowly and remained at about 4.4 years into the early part of the 21st century. Ironically, in spite of the Indian government’s emphasis on postsecondary education, Chinese higher education enrollments have now greatly eclipsed those in India, in large part because they are built on the broader base produced by investments in public primary and secondary education.
So while the idea of increased choice sounds appealing, the outcomes of charter schools have not been overwhelmingly impressive relative to the student outcomes already generated through existing public systems. In general, charter schools include as many high-performing and low-performing schools as traditional public schools. While not all evidence on charter schools is negative, early studies found a pattern of overall weaker performance, controlling for student background characteristics and a recent Stanford University study found that just 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than regular public schools in their districts, judging by improvements in students’ test scores. Given that parents who send their children to charter schools may be more likely, on average, to encourage their children’s educational attainments, the record of charter schools may actually be worse than the studies indicate. The amount of real choice in big-city systems is questionable. Few poor parents have the resources, transportation, information, or access to send their children to the highest-performing charter schools.
One of the poorest performing charter school systems is in fact Detroit’s, where Betsy DeVos has focused her attention. Instead of encouraging higher achievement by Detroit students, the charter school movement has failed to stop the deterioration of Detroit schools. Indeed, Detroit students’ test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been the worst among large city school districts every year since 2009. According to a New York Times report, lax oversight and insufficiently regulated growth have contributed to a system with “lots of choice, [but] no good choice.”
One of the poorest performing charter school systems is in fact Detroit’s, where Betsy DeVos has focused her attention.
Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, went further. “We’re a laughingstock in national education circles,” he wrote, “and a pariah among reputable charter school operators who have not opened schools in Detroit, because of the wild West nature of the educational landscape here.” He concluded glumly, “The most accurate assessment is that charter schools have simply created a second, privately managed failing system.” In spite of this evidence of failure, the DeVos family has strongly opposed any tightening of oversight or any limits to the growth of charters schools in Michigan.
Most Americans say they favor charter schools, and wealthy conservatives have not given up hope of convincing them that school vouchers that can be used to support attendance at private schools will provide even more attractive choices. As we face a new Administration intent on shrinking public control of education, we would do well to contemplate the words of the educational historian Diane Ravitch:
The basic compact that public education makes is this: the public is responsible for the children of the state, the district, the community. We all benefit when other people’s children are educated. It is our responsibility as citizens to support a high-quality public education, even if we don’t have children in the schools. But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant, the true sense of community responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.
Most people believe that education is the route to a better life, and they have good reason to believe it. More education tracks with better economic prospects, healthier lifestyles, and a more informed citizenry who participate more actively in the political and civic life of their communities, are more tolerant in their social attitudes, and express higher levels of trust and happiness. The question, then, of how we choose to educate people and how that choice shapes student outcomes is an important one, not only an individual level, but on a collective one as well.