Education in a Time of Uncertainty

Millions of Americans are suffering from metaphorical neck pain, stiffness, and headaches—symptoms of whiplash, caused by the recent and rapid shift in American politics. The government seems to be disorganized, long-held liberal policies are now being questioned, and Twitter is the new fireside chat. Policies are changing at a breakneck pace, and it is unclear what exactly is going to change.

Education seems most poised to do so. Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, champions voucher programs and school choice as an alternative to the public schools preferred by the Obama administration. Mostly, the line between philosophies on this issue is a party one, with most Republicans agreeing with DeVos and most Democrats agreeing with Mr. Obama.

The oldest programs in the United States for vouchers were instituted in New England in the late 1800s, as some towns had no local schools. With these vouchers, children could attend either public schools in other towns or private schools without a religious affiliation. One hundred years later, Milton Friedman, a famous economist and proponent of the free market, also supported vouchers. He argued that school choice would inspire competition and improve schools, extrapolating from market successes with the mail system and the telephone industry. Private companies entered those markets, inspiring competition that led to greater efficiency and innovation.

Theoretically, what Friedman says makes sense. Parents wanting only the best for their children seem likely to reject “bad” schools and choose “good” schools—thus making the poorly-performing schools’ outcomes improve via the Invisible Hand.

But the data from several voucher programs do not support his hypothesis. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article concluding that parental choice is not the only driver of quality in schools, and in fact cannot completely account for better quality in voucher programs.[1]

Milwaukee instituted the first modern voucher program in 1990. In the beginning, results were not as positive as expected. Schools were not properly regulated and often, corruption was commonplace. This program—and instances of corruption—persists to the modern day. LifeSkills Academy, for instance, received over two hundred thousand dollars in taxpayer money before shutting down in December 2012, having produced only one student proficient in reading for that year.[2] The public money spent by the school was lost, and the school became a tragic example of a voucher program gone wrong.

But corruption does not belong to choice schools alone. As a native of Michigan, Devos points out that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) are rife with corruption. She does have a valid argument—the corruption in DPS is infamous. Recently, authorities uncovered a $2.7 million kickback scheme.[3] It was just one of many. (Interestingly enough, the cause of this large-scale corruption may have been the fault of city “emergency managers” installed by Rick Snyder, the current Republican governor of the state, who also is a passionate supporter of school choice.) In Michigan, school choice and charter programs are as close to a free market as possible, with an easy entry and little regulation.

But the presence of school choice programs and market competition in Detroit hasn’t inspired DPS to improve. These choice schools have less oversight than ever before, and seem free to use taxpayer money however they wish. A common example of this is excessive spending; for instance, a charter school in Bedford Township spent more than one million dollars on unused swampland.[4] Of charter schools in Michigan, sixty-one percent are run by for-profit organizations.[5] All of these schools receive little to no oversight.

The Detroit Free Press reported that schools were allowed to be opened by companies without a record of success in previously-opened schools and were not given proper oversight. A record number of these schools failed to report on how they spend their money, inviting corruption that hurts school kids more than if they had stayed in the public schools.

Once children do get a choice, the journey to a better education is often not possible. School choice does not work in Metro Detroit, for instance, where public transportation is nearly nonexistent and thousands of children are left in DPS as more affluent families with a means of transport send their kids away.

Additionally, in order to be able to afford private schools, voucher recipients often choose schools with relatively cheaper tuitions: religious schools. Instead of a secular education, children are taught religiously-biased agendas. The program in Milwaukee showed that attendance and overall number of religious schools rise with the institution of voucher programs.[6]

Contrarily, public education fares better when investment increases. Research from economists at Northwestern University shows that increased investment in schools improves outcomes such as years of education, wages, and the annual incidence of adult poverty.[7] The research also concludes that poor communities benefitted at a greater rate than non-poor communities from investment in public schools.[8]

If DeVos and the new administration decides to abandon public schools in favor of vouchers, education in this new era of America will change forever. Vouchers are markedly different from public schools in their lack of oversight and mixed results. The lack of government regulation especially affects schools like LifeSkills, and results in fraudulent spending. Therefore, the theoretically lower cost per pupil associated with school choice is too large a risk to take, especially at the cost of destroying public schools and children’s educations. Voucher programs take students out of public schools, leaving mostly disadvantaged students behind. Due to the decrease in students, public schools lose thousands of dollars in funding and suffer from losing badly-needed resources. It’s easy to take one hundred kids out of a school—it’s hard to fire so many teachers, which deprives the economy of jobs and, eventually, a well-educated workforce. Instead of abandoning the public schools for a risky and questionable experiment, resources should be invested into the public system so that everyone can benefit from better education.

Works Cited:

[1] Borsuk, Alan J. “25 Years into Milwaukee’s Voucher Schools, Lessons for Wisconsin.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 24, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2017.

[2] Richards, Erin. “Milwaukee Voucher School LifeSkills Academy Closes ‘in the Dead of the Night'” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 14, 2014. Accessed February 26, 2017.

[3] Baldas, Tresa. “Corruption Schemes Ran Deep at DPS.” Detroit Free Press, May 07, 2016. Accessed February 26, 2017.

[4] Dixon, Jennifer. “Michigan Spends $1B on Charter Schools but Fails to Hold Them Accountable.” Detroit Free Press, June 22, 2014. Accessed June 26, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Weller, Chris. “Taxpayer money is keeping many Catholic schools alive, study finds.” Business Insider. February 16, 2017. Accessed March 05, 2017.

[7] Jackson, C. Kirabo, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico. “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 131 (2015): 157-218. Accessed March 5, 2017. doi:10.3386/w20847.

[8] Higgins, John. “Will more money for schools really help kids? New study may have long-term answer.” The Seattle Times, February 13, 2016. Accessed March 5, 2017.