School vouchers do not support public education

Senator Rob Portman voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, despite a fervent outcry from his constituents—including me and the Heights Coalition for Public Education. He defended the decision on his website, saying DeVos had expressed her commitment to “strongly support public education.” And he liked her embrace of local control.

She sure fooled him. The DeVos agenda supports neither public education nor local control.

Shortly after taking office, DeVos and her boss announced their commitment to making vouchers the centerpiece of their education plan. Rather than advancing civil rights by investing in our public schools, for them the road to equality is giving more poor children the same opportunity as the wealthy to reject public schools.

School vouchers are anti-public education. Vouchers use public funds to pay for private education, most of which is religious. According to education researcher Gary Orfield, four-fifths of private schools are religious. The Cleveland Heights experience with vouchers shows that public funds are most frequently used for religious education. It doesn’t help public education, and it blurs the division of church and state.

It looks like tax breaks using tuition tax credits will be the implementation method. Tax breaks reduce resources for the common good and advantage individuals. How does moving children out of public schools honor local control?

Choice advocates assume that public is bad, and choice, regardless of quality, is good. They argue that increasing choice through vouchers and charters will give more children access to better schools and will force public schools to improve. Sadly, the evidence does not support either claim. The push for privatization is sold as a way to advance civil rights, even if it fails to improve learning and destroys a public system that serves the majority of students.

DeVos has publicly stated that reforming public education is a way to “advance God’s kingdom.”  I imagine she has more than one kind of salvation in mind when she argues that poor and minority children need to be saved from those terrible public schools by shopping around with a voucher.

Unlike many communities, Cleveland Heights is loaded with private options. Within a few miles there are high-end college preparatory schools, Montessori schools for all grade levels, and progressive “alternative” schools. Religious schools run the gamut from Jewish and Catholic options, to a sprinkling of Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, and Christian schools.

Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools have been hit hard by Ohio’s voucher program, which transfers state funding allocated to local school districts directly to private schools that enroll district residents who qualify for one of three voucher programs.

The largest program is called EdChoice. Vouchers pay for children who reside in the attendance area of a school with low test scores to “escape” that school at public expense.

This year the Heights schools lost more than $4.6 million to 659 students using vouchers under EdChoice and the autism and Peterson grants for students with special education needs. The combined cost of charters and vouchers is greater than the income that the newest levy will generate. How is this helping public schools get better?

Vouchers, as noted, by and large support religious education. Last year, all but seven of the 273 students who used an Edchoice voucher to attend a private school attended a religious school. Almost half the students were in kindergarten and had never spent one day in public school. This year the number of EdChoice students increased to 483, and, once again, all but seven of these students attended a religious school. It’s questionable if they are providing public school children more options or simply subsidizing people's existing plans to give their children a religious education—a choice our education tradition has always allowed, but not at public expense.

In Educational Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make Schools Fair, Orfield explains that while choice is a very seductive idea, it is not an American tradition. Public schools were designed to serve communities, not individuals. Public agencies, he reminds us, “are created to do something essential.” Having an educated citizenry is essential. We achieve that with a professional system of free public education for all.

Participation by all is what makes the system strong. Choice discourages participation and transforms the common good into a consumer item. Individual choice ignores the common good and destroys the capacity to serve it.

Please, Senator Portman, if you support public education and local control, stop the DeVos agenda.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 4, Posted 7:09 PM, 03.30.2017