Today, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Secretary of Education. Although plenty of people are upset about her bizarre fear of grizzlies, her lack of understanding of the job itself, and the awfully suspicious donations to those who ultimately decided her fate, we might still wonder why it’s bad to have a SecEd who favors school choice and vouchers. Charter schools and vouchers are all the rage now. We constantly hear about public schools failing. We’re capitalists, for crying out loud! How can choice be a bad thing?
Well, let’s start with this simple observation: the meanest thing we do to working families is let school out at 3 PM. Most jobs don’t end in the middle of the afternoon and after-school care isn’t cheap. (Don’t even get me started on closing for 3 months at a time.)
In recognition of the fact that not everyone has parents who can sit in a mile-long carpool lane in the middle of the afternoon, many school districts offer school buses. Some don’t. In Alabama, where I live, some of “the best” districts don’t. (I use scare quotes here because frankly, I don’t think that a school system that denies access to children should be called good, let alone the best.)
Why am I talking about school buses? What in the world does this have to do with anything?
I’m talking about school buses because in education, access is everything. And importantly, with K-12 education, everyone is supposed to be able to access it.
School choice programs – programs that allow students to enroll in any school in a particular district, even if it is not the school for which they are zoned – rarely come with transportation attached. This means that the only children who are able to access those “better” options (yeah, again with the scare quotes) are those whose parents are able to provide transportation to and from the school.
Vouchers are the school choice problem on steroids. To make use of a voucher for a private school, a child’s parents have to a) be aware of the voucher system, b) be competent in terms of navigating bureaucratic procedures to apply for and receive a voucher, c) receive a voucher that covers enough of the private school tuition (assuming the school in question has a spot available and the student qualifies for admission), and d) provide transportation to and from the school. Oh! And let’s not forget that for the child to benefit from the system rather than merely take part in it, the parent has to be able to research the available options and make a well-informed decision about which school is best.
The children who benefit from these programs are the children whose home lives likely correct for institutional deficiencies anyway. These kids were going to be fine. The schools that lose these children don’t just lose students and any per-pupil funding that might attach to them; they lose the parental support of highly motivated, system-savvy, education-oriented parents. This means that the children who need the most institutional support are left in schools with the fewest resources to overcome institutional deficiencies. Then, those resource-poor schools are blamed for their failures. Then? The next wave of privileged parents opt out of it. It is, after all, a failing school.
We design a system that benefits only those who are already privileged. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Then, the poor get blamed for getting poorer. Then, just for bonus points on our already outstanding civics exam, we confirm a SecEd who wants to take the whole game national.
I guarantee you I will have more to say about education in future posts. About the racial segregation and inequality that are baked into the system. About the ways that well-meaning white parents exacerbate that inequality. About what it means to say that the rights of disabled children ought to be left to the states (because what has ever gone wrong with leaving the rights of individuals to the states?). But for now, let me just say this: part of why we require education is to create an informed citizenry for a functioning democracy. Part of why we want a democracy is because we are committed to equality. But if you want kids in civics classes to learn how great America is because “all men are created equal” and whatnot, maybe first make sure they all had equal access to the class.