“The existing K-12 school system (including most charters and private schools) has been transformed into a knowledge-free zone…Surveys conducted by NAEP and other testing agencies reveal an astonishing lack of historical and civic knowledge…Fifty-two percent chose Germany, Japan, or Italy as “U.S. Allies” in World War II.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has set off a new round in America’s long-running education wars. Teachers’ unions and progressive activists are warning of impending disaster—that DeVos and other “billionaire privatizers” are out to dismantle America’s public schools, the pillars of our democracy. Pro-choice education reformers, on the other hand, are cheering the DeVos appointment, and see great opportunities ahead for their movement. DeVos is one of the nation’s most tenacious advocates for (and generous funders of) the market approach to education. She likes charter schools, but is a true believer in vouchers—the policy of giving parents of children stuck in failing public schools tax dollars to pay tuition at the private schools of their choice. Even more encouraging, DeVos will presumably have the backing of a president who pledged on the campaign trail to use $20 billion in federal education funds to boost voucher programs in the states.
Unfortunately, hyperbole seems to be trumping reality (pun not intended) in this latest dust-up over the schools. Both sides ought to consider a ceasefire in order to begin focusing on the major cause of bad schooling in America: a half-century of discredited instructional practices in the classroom.
Let’s dispose of a couple of canards. First, the Trump administration isn’t about to privatize the public schools—far from it. During the campaign, the Republican-dominated Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that includes provisions severely limiting the federal role in K-12 education. These restrictions make it exceedingly difficult for the new administration to launch any sort of national school-choice program or to do away with Common Core. For better or worse, the future of all such reforms will remain exactly where they began—in the states.
Second, neither side in the debate has been entirely candid on the issue of charters and vouchers. We’ve already had several decades of robust school-choice experiments in the states and localities, many of which have been thoroughly evaluated. The results provide little confirmation for either side’s argument on how best to improve the schools. Charters seem to have produced significant gains for students in some school districts, including New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York. On the other hand, the largest study of charter school effects nationally (conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found that only 17 percent of all charters had higher academic gains than similar public schools, while 37 percent had worse performance. Forty-six percent of charters performed no better or worse than public schools in the same district.
The grade for voucher programs is also an Incomplete. The country’s largest voucher experiment was launched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 26 years ago. Today, more than 28,000 students are enrolled in the program, one-in-four of all the city’s students. Most minority parents are happy with their voucher schools—not a small point in its favor—but there has been no Milwaukee academic miracle. In fact, the city’s black children have recorded some of the worst test scores of any urban district in the country, as measured by National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.