The continued push for school vouchers, which transfer scarce taxpayer dollars out of public education and into private schools, is “a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”
That’s how one scholar described President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos has been called the “four-star general” of the voucher movement, and getting her in place was a breakthrough for voucher advocates. But parents and policymakers must not lose sight of an extremely important truth: There is more evidence than ever before that the basic premise of the voucher movement is a lie.
Evidence has been accumulating over the last two years that many students in voucher programs have lost significant educational ground in math and reading. One study released last year was actually financed by a pro-voucher foundation and conducted by a pro-voucher think tank, and even it found that voucher students in private schools did worse academically than their peers in public schools.
Just this month, the Brookings Institution examined the evidence. It reported that four rigorous studies, using different research designs, reached the same result: “On average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”
Some voucher supporters are trying to put a happy face on a recent study showing that students who stayed in voucher programs for three or four years began to make up for what they lost in the first two. In other words, after four years of taxpayer-funded vouchers, students are getting back to where they would have been without them.
It takes ideological stubbornness to turn that into a ringing endorsement.
One of the remarkable things about the well-funded effort to delegitimize and undermine public education is that some “reform” advocates demand in the name of accountability that public school students be subjected to relentless high-stakes testing to measure their academic progress. Test scores are often used to grade schools and evaluate teachers. But when it comes to private schools accepting voucher funds, demands for transparency and accountability evaporate.
The Washington Post recently found that seven of the nation’s 10 largest voucher programs either don’t require students to take standardized tests or don’t require them to make the results public. Eight of the 10 don’t even have minimum performance requirements a school must meet to keep taking public money.
It’s a persistent problem. A Post investigation of the federally funded D.C. voucher program five years ago found a stunning lack of quality control and accountability. And just this month, the Post reported, “While spending by public schools in D.C. and elsewhere is public information, it is not clear where the voucher money goes.”
In the face of this evidence, DeVos’ representative serves up pablum, saying parents “don’t need more data sets, they need more options.”
The voucher movement is and always has been political. It has racist origins in the massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision banning school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Some local officials chose to underfund or even shut down public schools altogether while using tax dollars to pay for white parents to send their children to segregated private academies.
Vouchers are also an ideological project of anti-government intellectuals like the late Milton Friedman, who argued that vouchers should be used as a stepping stone to privatizing public education altogether, and Religious Right activists like the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who hoped he would see the day when public schools had been eliminated and “the churches will have taken them over again.”
Mother Jones reported last year that of more than 300 Indiana schools getting voucher money, only four of them were not “overtly religious.” More vouchers mean more public money flowing into religious schools.
Public education is an essential democratic institution. To starve or dismantle it under false premises is a theft of taxpayer money that harms students and our communities.
Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.