vying for vouchers

Could Donald Trump’s school voucher bonanza become a reality in New York City?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

When President-elect Donald Trump announced Betsy DeVos as his pick to lead the U.S. education department, one thing became clear: His stated interest in channeling public dollars into private schools would be championed by a full-throated believer in privatization.

But could Trump’s promise to launch a $20 billion national voucher program for low-income children — bolstered by billions in additional state funding — ever take hold in New York City?

The short answer is yes, according to education experts, though it would likely face a number of political, logistical, and legal obstacles that would make a large exodus of public school students into New York City’s private schools unlikely.

One central challenge is the state legislature, which probably wouldn’t approve the billions of dollars necessary to implement a competitive voucher program.

Under Trump’s proposal, which is light on details, states would have to pony up to make the program work. Assuming Trump finds $20 billion to spend on vouchers, perhaps by reallocating Title I funding, that would by itself yield less than $2,000 per student living under the federal poverty line nationwide. That leaves much of the funding burden on the states — so if the legislature refused to support the program, it would limit the program’s reach (after all, $2,000 wouldn’t buy you much private school).

A voucher program in New York “would require a lot of political support, more so than is here now,” said Aaron Pallas, an education professor at Teachers College. He noted that the state legislature has even refused to approve a much softer measure to make certain donations to private schools tax deductible. “It’s unlikely a DeVos appointment is going to change that political calculus,” he said.

The state legislature would likely also have to overcome an unusual alliance: politically influential teacher unions and charter operators who might unite over the fear of losing public funding.

But even if the legislature did fund the program, state law could bar that money from going to the vast majority of the city’s private schools. That’s because the state constitution in New York — and roughly three quarters of all states — currently prohibits funneling public money into religious schools, according to David Bloomfield, an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

In New York City, 616 of the city’s 810 private schools are religious (76 percent), according to state data, meaning the pool of schools that could accept vouchers may be limited. (An important caveat, Bloomfield noted, is the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal funding can be used on religious schools, leaving open the possibility that parents could use federal money to send their kids to religious schools. Still, federal funding alone is unlikely to give parents enough purchasing power to compete in the education free market Trump’s proposal envisions.)

Even if a voucher program cleared all of those roadblocks, “There would also be a capacity issue,” said Sean Corcoran, an education and economics professor at New York University. “To my knowledge, there are not a lot of private schools with extra space.”

Despite those obstacles, however, a voucher program in New York City is far from impossible. For one thing, there are lots of private schools (roughly 20 percent of the city’s students already attend them). And vouchers have even been tried, to some extent: In the late 1990s New York City experimented with foundation-funded vouchers, though they did not produce dramatic gains in student achievement.

“I think it’s actually more of a threat than most people think,” Bloomfield said. “Even without a state supplement, [federal dollars] could provide a subsidy for families who are looking to opt out of the public school system.”

Without specifics about how much the vouchers could be worth, it’s hard to predict the extent to which they could incentivize families to make different education decisions. But, Bloomfield said, if the Trump administration were to reduce Title I funding in favor of vouchers, the city could see a reduction in the “quality of public schools [that would] drive more students to the private market.”

Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies education inequality, echoed that thought. “Even a moderately funded voucher program would give parents some options,” she said. “I don’t think we can just write it off as not plausible.”

Though Potter noted vouchers are “highly unlikely” to get much political support in New York City, the effects of a modest program could be noticeable.

“The biggest risk of a private school voucher program is the public accountability that ensures that parents are really getting access to quality options, and ensuring kids of different backgrounds have a chance to learn together falls by the wayside,” Potter said.

“There would be a lot of political opposition to it, but as with [the Obama administration’s] Race to the Top, there are a lot of things states will do for the money.”

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.

DeVos later added:

first steps

Secretary Betsy DeVos on first school visit: ‘Teachers are waiting to be told what they have to do’

For someone now running the federal education department, Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t have many ideas for how it’s needed.

In one of her first interviews since being confirmed as secretary last week, DeVos said the federal government was right to step in “when we had segregated schools” and to ensure girls’ access to sports teams. But she suggested that those issues have been resolved, narrowing the issues where federal intervention might be appropriate.

From the interview, published Friday by Axios (the new news site created by Politico’s founders):

“I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

In fact, American schools, by some measures, are more racially segregated now than when the federal government began to play an active role in desegregating them in the 1960s.

Some advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Education to play a stronger role in desegregating schools. DeVos’s comments suggest her worldview is one in which the major fights over civil rights in American education have already been fought and won, and almost all remaining issues can be addressed best by states and local districts.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a conservative news site, DeVos was also quick to offer her ideas about why teachers struggle — and criticize some of the first public school teachers she encountered on the job. (Cue her critics, who are concerned that she does not have any experience as an educator or working in schools.)

Here’s how she described the discussion she had during her one of her first school visits in Washington, D.C.:

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success[ful] from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

In the same interview, DeVos signaled interest in a tactic more commonly used by activists than agency leaders.

She was asked,

Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

She recalled a march in Florida that drew thousands to protest a lawsuit meant to block a voucher program that she supported. “I think that is an idea worthy of consideration,” she said.

Update: Jefferson Academy Middle School, the DeVos made the “receive mode” comments about, hit back on Twitter late Friday — as did the current and former chancellors of the D.C. school systems. Read what they had to say.