My wife and I love to eat out. It’s our favorite thing to do on a Friday night. But eating out is expensive, and I’m not one of those guys who doesn’t have to look at the prices when he orders. When I get a coupon for a restaurant I want to try, it always seems like there are restrictions that make it so I can’t actually use it. It doesn’t apply on Fridays or Saturdays. Or it applies only to a prix fixe menu that doesn’t include the dish the restaurant is known for. And even when I do use the coupon, it’s always BOGO, with the cheaper entree given free. When our teenage daughter deigns to eat with us, hers is full price. The appetizers, drinks, side dishes, and desserts aren’t included either. So, when I get the bill, I feel like I saved very little. What I saved might be equivalent to getting the tax knocked off. If I hadn’t been able to afford to eat out in the first place, the coupon would have been useless.

That’s what Betsy DeVos’ “school choice” amounts to. School choice, the current euphemism for school vouchers, is championed by President Trump and has been supported to the tune of $1.4 billion in the budget he submitted last month. It will give public tax money to any school a family wants to send its children to, including public, private and religious schools. These vouchers, if implemented, will increase racial segregation, increase the dropout rate, and result in middle- and lower-income families receiving fewer services and options than their wealthier neighbors.

The effects of vouchers were studied in a new report for the nonprofit progressive think tank The Century Foundation. The report’s author, Halley Potter, concluded that, in practice, vouchers have shown a greater tendency to make schools, public and private, more segregated. White flight is enabled. A study shows that “white families are more likely to attend private school when there is a greater percentage of black students enrolled in the local public schools” (Reardon and Yun, “Private Schools and Segregation”). Segregation in schools has been increasing slowly since the 1980s and now resemble segregation numbers in the bad old days of the 1960s. Vouchers will accelerate this trend.

School vouchers are going to hurt students down at ground level in real, day-to-day terms. Simple arithmetic will tell you that if more money goes to religious and for-profit schools, there will be fewer students in public schools and less money to fund them. Despite right-wing depictions of government agencies as bloated and wasteful, public schools are actually pretty lean operations. They offer free public education, and spend only 72% of what private schools do. Educate Nevada Now stated that “If 20,000 children qualify for vouchers, Nevada public school budgets will be reduced by at least $100 million annually. As more schools and educational services are offered in the new ‘private market’ opened up by vouchers, even more funding will be diverted from the public schools…. very quickly, the voucher program will cause a substantial loss of funds necessary to operate Nevada’s already underfunded public schools.” Vouchers, the writer concludes, will drain the budgets of public schools by diverting money to private schools, including schools that don’t even exist yet but will sprout up to profit from the voucher program.

What happens when a school district’s budgets are drained? Any public school teacher can answer that question. In Kansas, the Wichita school district is facing a $16 million to $20 million budget deficit and will have to make some hard choices. “Options include reducing the number of school nurses, librarians and counselors; eliminating all-day kindergarten; moving to a four-day school week; cutting transportation; privatizing custodial services; doing away with International Baccalaureate, AVID and JROTC programs; and possibly, eventually closing some of the district’s smallest elementary schools.” So, even academic options like International Baccalaureate (IB) may not be safe. Neighborhood elementary schools may be shuttered. Working parents might have to find new ways to get their kids to school, which might be miles away now because their nearest elementary school closed. And parents of the youngest children will have to find money to pay for one more year of child care costs if kindergarten is only a half day. School security teams are also likely to be reduced, being not essential to the academic core curriculum, and with student-to-staff ratios getting higher, students in these schools will become less safe.

But closing schools and cutting academic programs are last resort measures. Before that happens, the axe is most likely to fall on school sports, as they have in Glen Rock, New Jersey. CBS New York reports that the Glen Rock school district in New Jersey is suffering budget cuts and is considering cutting its middle school sports programs if parents can’t subsidize the programs themselves. Losing sports programs will increase schools’ dropout rates. Daniel H. Bowen and Colin Hitt, in “High School Sports Aren’t Killing Academics” (The Atlantic,10/2/2013 ), point out that “controlling for student poverty levels, demographics, and district financial resources… a school’s commitment to athletics (is) significantly, positively related to lower dropout rates as well as higher test scores.”

I have taught in public high schools for 24 years, and can confirm this. I have known many students who have struggled in their academic classes but continued to come to school, did not drop out, because of an extracurricular activity they cared about, like auto shop or choir, football or track. I have known many more students who were unenthusiastic about school but who continued to pass their classes because—and only because—the athletic team they played on required them to do so in order to retain their eligibility. School vouchers will create budget deficits which in turn will cause public schools to eliminate some of its extracurricular activities, including sports. And if we lose those extracurriculars, we’re going to lose some kids. There’s no question. Students who struggle in school and have nothing that tethers them to it will drop out.

When students drop out of school, their road is bleak. When those uneducated young people become adults, they are far more likely to be incarcerated or dependent on public assistance. 1 in 10 males who dropped out of high school is incarcerated on any given day. The number is even higher for black male dropouts. CBS News reported that “Dropouts cost taxpayers more than $8 billion annually in public assistance programs like food stamps.” You either pay now, or pay more later. Short term gain, long term pain.

Furthermore, I can’t imagine that the vouchers will cover the cost of tuition at the best private and parochial schools. For working-class folks, a voucher will only buy entrance into these suddenly shrunken, bare-bones schools. According to the Private School Review, the average tuition for a private high school in Seattle is $14,156. On average, Washington public high schools spend 28% less per pupil: $10,202. The children’s parents will undoubtedly be expected to pay the difference between the voucher’s value and the full tuition price. $4,000 might seem affordable to some middle-class and affluent families, but it won’t to those struggling to put food on the table and keep the bill collectors from the door. How many low-income families will be able to avail themselves of the private and religious schools that will be profiting from public funds if Sec. DeVos is successful in instituting school vouchers? It’ll be just like that restaurant coupon; it sounds like a good deal, but when you try to redeem it, you find it isn’t really what it appeared to be.

School vouchers are going to harm students, particularly the working class and the vocationally inclined. Under the guise of “increasing options,” Devos’ “school choice” is going to devastate public schools and make them more racially segregated than they are now. Last month, at the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos said her mission is this: ”providing each child with the chance to pursue a great education in a safe and nurturing environment.” Her voucher program will achieve none of these goals. Not all children will benefit equally from it, schools will be forced to offer fewer options, and will become less safe and less nurturing places for our kids.

  • Derek D. Watson

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© Daniel Sato