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School vouchers still don’t work, despite what Trump and DeVos think

Earl O. Hutchinson

Ask yourself this. What would you tell a used car salesman who tried to get you to pay top dollar for a clunker that didn’t run? In this case, the used car salesmen are Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the clunker is school vouchers. The cost of the clunker of a program that they’re going to do everything they can to sell Congress and taxpayers on is not a few thousand dollars, but billions. That’s billions of dollars that must come from somewhere, and that somewhere is public schools.

DeVos and other school voucher cheerleaders have screamed long and loud that vouchers are the panacea for grossly underserved, failing public schools — and that their mostly poor black and Hispanic students would soar to the academic skies if they could just get into a pricey, preppy, private school somewhere. Except for a brief, half-hearted attempt by the Obama administration to allocate more federal dollars for voucher programs, their voucher education pipe dream has been confined to schools in D.C. and a handful of states.

That may change. Trump proposes plopping a couple billion more federal dollars into voucher programs in 2018. That isn’t the worst of it. He and DeVos openly call for something that has never happened in the history of federal funding of public schools in the country: a federal tax credit program resembling what exists in Florida and some other states. This would put taxpayers on the hook for bankrolling private schools, with vouchers as the ticket to entry. This is the ultimate example of proclaiming that education is for sale — with the seller being the White House.

Both Trump’s and DeVos’ disdain for public education is well-known. DeVos, through her nonprofit organization, American Federation for Children, has turned charters into a cash cow by promoting them to millionaire investors and entrepreneurs. In the process, public schools have been shuttered along the way. But neither Trump nor DeVos would ever dare to be such fanatic boosters of school vouchers if two things hadn’t emboldened them.

One is the handful of studies that purport to show that vouchers in some very carefully proscribed cases do marginally boost test scores for some black students in very select voucher programs. However, several recent studies counter those findings. In one released in 2015, researchers looked at Indiana’s school voucher program, which had thousands of students. It was pushed to the ceiling by then Governor Mike Pence. They found that voucher students attending private schools not only did not improve achievement in math and reading, but experienced “significant losses.”

The study was no fluke. Months later, a similar study of Louisiana — which, like Indiana, has a big, and expansive voucher program — found the same. There was no improvement in math and reading scores among the mostly black and poor students in the state program.

Then there is a study of Ohio’s voucher program, conducted by a conservative think tank. It has no liberal, anti-voucher ax to grind and has long been a champion of school vouchers. Yet the Ohio study had the same result as the studies of Indiana and Louisiana schools. There was no improvement in math and reading for these students. In fact, there was big slippage in their achievement, compared to students in the private schools in which they were enrolled.

Trump and DeVos could care less about studies like these. Their voucher agenda is driven by a fanatical disdain for public schools, and the prospect of raking in tons of money from propagating private education, vouchers and charters. But they also are emboldened by something else: black parents. Many regard vouchers as their children’s ticket out of miserably failing public schools. In years past, surveys found that most black parents wanted vouchers. They are the ones who are the most likely to have children attending public schools.

In 1990, when the mostly black and failing Milwaukee public schools authorized vouchers for private schools, the stampede by black parents to grab the money and enroll their children into private or parochial schools was so great, school officials had to have a lottery to decide who received a voucher. To the shock of black leaders, many black activists, instead of denouncing vouchers as a right-wing threat to public schools, denounced black leaders for opposing them.

The activists saw vouchers as a weapon against an insensitive, stagnant and often racist educational bureaucracy that systematically victimizes black children. To them, they are a steppingstone toward educational empowerment.

Many black parents didn’t scream for vouchers to rebel against civil rights leaders because they were sudden converts to conservative politics or because they want to wreck public education. They were simply fed up with the decaying, crime-ridden schools, terrible teachers and indifferent administrators that their students are dumped into.

The longing and sentiment for quality education is understandable. But there’s just too much history that shows that vouchers aren’t the answer no matter what Trump and DeVos think.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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