President Donald Trump has proposed cutting after-school programs for young children as well as grants and federal work-study programs for college students. But his most significant attack on public education may be his pledge to spend $20 billion on market-based school choice, including charter schools and vouchers.
Conventional voucher policies exist in 16 states. Taxpayers in those states help pay private-school tuition for about 175,000 students each year. Education savings accounts that let states circumnavigate constitutional language against public funding for private and religious organizations are used in 17 states and generate another 250,000 vouchers annually.
Before the public embraces Trump’s plans to create even more vouchers, there are important things it should know about the voucher concept’s origination.
Milton Friedman, a University of Chicago economist and apostle of free-market fundamentalism, believed corporations should be able to profit from education. In 1997, he wrote an article arguing that vouchers were “a means to make a transition from a government to a market system,” to enable “a private, for-profit industry to develop” and ultimately abolish public schools.
In 1955, Friedman also wrote that he didn’t believe in government-sponsored integration of schools. Southern politicians agreed and used vouchers to create what were called “segregation academies” for whites only.
Proponents of school vouchers overlook this history and frame vouchers as a “limited” approach to help poor children in cities — even claiming they are a civil right.
The political argument that market-based school choice is the answer for long-standing inequalities in the American education system is at odds with the positions of most national civil rights organizations. The NAACP and Urban League agree that vouchers, in the words of a civil rights leadership conference report, “siphon away all-too-limited public education funds and fail to provide protection from discrimination and segregation.”
In fact, there is little evidence that vouchers have a positive effect on student performance. Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor of economics and education, concluded in a recent Economic Policy Institute report that the predominance of peer-reviewed research over 25 years shows vouchers don’t improve student success.
Yet vouchers are supported by well-heeled conservative philanthropists and conservatives, including the Koch brothers, American Legislative Executive Council, Walton Foundation and Heritage Foundation. That’s because vouchers purposefully transfer the responsibility for educating students, and the funding that comes with it, away from the traditional democratically controlled public school system.
And vouchers give private schools greater control over the student population through such practices as “creaming” and “cropping.” Creaming occurs when private schools choose to enroll only the best and least costly students. Cropping is when they deny more costly students who are disabled, poor or language learners. Private “choice schools” can legally prevent them from enrolling.
Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos remain committed to privately managed school choice funded by public tax dollars, despite a sordid racial history, opposition from the civil rights community, state constitutional problems and the proven failure of the approach to help students.
Julian Vasquez Heilig is a professor at California State University Sacramento. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project and was distributed by Tribune News Service.