Spotlight Exclusives

Donald Trump’s Misguided Education Policy

Martin Carnoy, Stanford University Martin Carnoy, Stanford University, posted on

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, the Trump administration has put its money on expanding public subsidies for private education as its main educational policy over the next four years. DeVos has been a devout advocate of subsidizing religious education through vouchers and charters in her home state of Michigan, using her wealth to push through legislation that favored private alternatives to public schools.

For Donald Trump, educational “choice,” as this policy is popularly branded, also serves as a key appeal to low-income minority voters dissatisfied with public education, especially in urban areas. In his address to Congress, the president featured a young black woman who had received a voucher to attend a private school in Florida and went on to complete college. Three days later, Trump and DeVos visited a private Catholic school near Orlando, Florida, where many of the students attend via vouchers financed through Florida’s tax credit program for corporations that donate to a private foundation, which in turn issues the vouchers. Florida’s constitution does not permit public funding of religious schools, hence the tax credit scheme.

No matter what the president and secretary may believe about the superiority of private over public education (neither attended a public school at any point in their education, and neither did any of their children), the empirical evidence suggests that learning gains for students in voucher (and charter) schools are no higher than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Extensive research in the U.S. on educational vouchers and charters over the past twenty-five years in New York City, Washington, D.C. Cleveland, Ohio, Dayton, Ohio, Milwaukee, and, yes, Michigan, shows that gains in student achievement from privatizing education with taxpayer dollars are at best small.

There is no way of knowing how voucher students in private schools are doing in Florida compared to public school students because private and public school students take different tests. Yet, careful studies of more recent programs in Indiana and Louisiana financing tens of thousands of low-income students to attend private schools show even worse results. These voucher students’ achievement is much lower than matched students who stayed in public schools.

The clearest case against private school choice as the route to improve education for low-income minority students is Milwaukee. Milwaukee has been a totally “choice” school district for almost 20 years—students can select among traditional public schools, public magnet schools, charter schools, and, if eligible, private voucher schools. Only one in four students attends his or her neighborhood school. If choice were the answer to improving U.S. education for low-income children, Milwaukee should be among the highest scoring urban school districts in the nation.

That is far from the case. Research over a four-year period that compared the gains of voucher and public school students in Milwaukee showed that the voucher students in private schools did no better. The African Americans who make up roughly two-thirds of Milwaukee’s student body are the main recipients of vouchers and are also most likely to attend charter schools. Their academic performance weighs heavily in assessing the overall impact of choice in the district. When we compare the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP) scores of black students in eighth-grade math and reading in 13 urban U.S. school districts, black students in Milwaukee have lower eighth-grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit—notably, another urban district with a high level of school choice. In reading, Milwaukee’s black eighth-graders do even more poorly. They score lower than black eighth-graders in all other 12 city school districts.

The one bright spot that research on voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. can point to is that graduation rates are modestly higher for voucher students of high school age in those cities. But this modest advantage is small compared to recent national increases in public high school graduation rates among low-income students.

Given all this evidence, an argument can be made that the Trump-DeVos push to promote private alternatives to public schools for low-income students is deeply cynical. It focuses on diverting resources from public education and from system-wide reforms that have worked to increase mathematics and reading scores on national tests significantly across states. It is doing so mainly for ideological reasons and as part of a long-term Republican strategy to dismantle teachers’ unions.

DeVos’ and Trump’s ideological and policy views denigrating public education and extoling government support for private alternatives will not help and could hurt America’s disadvantaged children. This precisely at a time when African-American and Hispanic students are making large gains in public schools. Luckily, education policy is largely a state matter. Those states that resist DeVos’ and Trump’s misguided policies will be doing all their students a real favor.

Martin Carnoy is Vida Jacks Chair of Education and Economics at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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