by Félix Pérez
US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, addressing a school voucher advocacy organization she founded, funded and chaired, rolled out the Trump administration’s voucher plan, which would take $1.4 billion in scarce resources from neighborhood public schools to give to private school vouchers.
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Speaking in Indianapolis last night before the American Federation for Children, an organization DeVos chaired before President Trump picked her as education secretary, DeVos did not mention that the money to fund the “most ambitious” voucher and charter school plan “in our nation’s history” is to come from the elimination of 22 education programs and initiatives, such as after-school and summer programs, class size reduction, and teacher recruitment and training.
DeVos’ remarks were short on specifics and long on platitudes and slights. She declared educators and proponents of public schools are “resistant to any meaningful change.” She described advocates of public education as “flat-earthers.” Using a straw man argument, DeVos said elected officials who oppose the Trump-DeVos plan “do not support equal opportunity for all kids.”
Lily Eskelsen García, former Utah Teacher of the Year, said the Trump-DeVos voucher plan is part and parcel of a “reckless and irresponsible” budget that slashes $10.6 billion from education. Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said:
Vouchers do not work and they take scarce funding away from public schools — where 90 percent of America’s students enroll — and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public. Spending money on voucher programs means denying students the opportunities they deserve in their neighborhood public schools.
DeVos failed to mention that her national voucher plan would compel taxpayers to fund two different education systems – one public and one private. Nor did DeVos address how vouchers could devastate rural communities, where there are no or few private school options, and schools often serve as the social center of the community and the sole provider of critical services such as summer lunch and programs, food pantries and sports.
Kindergarten teacher Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said DeVos, who praised Indiana’s voucher program in her remarks, “lacks the awareness and understanding of even the most basic education issues.” Meredith, who spoke out about DeVos’ speech on the steps of the statehouse, said: ”
DeVos came into office with the intention to promote voucher programs nationwide, as she did here in Indiana through her political action committee. We in Indiana know that vouchers take scarce funding away from public schools and give it to private, often religious, schools that are unaccountable to the public.
Indiana has the largest school voucher program in the nation. Vice President Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana, expanded the program dramatically in 2013. But as a National Public Radio story pointed out this month, the program has troubling shortcomings, including:
- Private voucher schools get to choose which students they accept, unlike public schools, which must accept every student.
- Voucher schools have the right to turn away students with disabilities.
- According to research by Mark Berends of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, Indianapolis students in grades 3-8 who left public schools to attend private Catholic schools experienced no benefit in reading but “moderate and statistically significant average annual losses in mathematics compared with the gains they experienced while attending traditional public schools.”
- Fifty-five percent of the students who use vouchers were already attending private schools, contradicting a central justification for the program, that it was designed to benefit students from low-income families.
- Roughly 40 percent of all private school students in Indiana receive a state voucher.
- The voucher program has created a $53 million deficit in the state’s education budget.
- Schools receiving voucher funds are not required to submit annual financial reports, a loophole that has resulted in cases of financial mismanagement.
- Private voucher schools can deny a student based on academic or disciplinary history.
During her remarks, DeVos commented that spreading vouchers nationwide will not be easy. Public school advocates “will not go quietly into the night,” she said.
Meredith agreed. “We will not sit back and be quiet as public schools in Indiana and nationwide are threatened.”