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President-elect Donald Trump has said little on the issue of education. His only specific proposal during the campaign was a massive expansion of school vouchers, promising to cut $20 billion from elsewhere in the education budget to pay for it. Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary reinforced the idea he is serious about pushing a “school choice” agenda. DeVos is a Michigan billionaire known for backing both voucher programs and the spread of charter schools. Her selection has set off alarm bells for public school advocates, and even for fellow reformers who say her approach has lacked accountability. A discussion about education under the Trump Administration.
- Emma Brown National education reporter, The Washington Post
- Douglas Harris Professor of economics, Tulane University; director, Education Research Alliance for New Orleans
- Lindsey Burke Education fellow, The Heritage Foundation
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President-elect Donald Trump has said a school voucher program will be the centerpiece of his education policy. His pick for secretary of education, Betsy deVos is a known supporter of both vouchers and charter schools. Here to look at how our education system might change under a Trump administration, Emma Brown of The Washington Post, Douglas Harris of Tulane University and Lindsey Burke, she's with the Heritage Foundation.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite your comments, questions. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MS. EMMA BROWNThanks for having us.
MR. DOUGLAS HARRISThanks, Diane.
MS. LINDSEY BURKEThank you.
REHMEmma, I'll start with you. Tell us what we know about Donald Trump's education policy.
BROWNWell, he didn't talk a whole lot about education on the campaign trail, but he did talk about a few things. He made one real substantive speech about education at a charter school and he spoke about this $20 billion program that he wants to do as a way of pushing for more charter schools, more voucher programs across the country. There aren't a lot of details about how that would work or where the money would come from, but, you know, he signaled with his pick of Betsy DeVos, as education secretary, that he means it, that choice and vouchers and charter schools are going to at, somehow, the centerpiece of what he wants to do in education.
REHMHow would he do that? Would he do it by grants to states or how would he do that?
BROWNWell, the way he described it on the campaign trail was, yes, as block grants to states with a real encouragement from the federal government to use that money for choice. And he said he would also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to persuade states to invest many more billions of dollars in the same thing. So that his proposal was, eventually, with all these state and federal dollars, poor children would each get $12,000 to put towards the school of their choice.
REHMInteresting. Lindsey Burke, he would use this voucher system. How does he propose paying for it?
BURKEYeah, well, you know, I think Emma's exactly right. Until we see the details come out on the plan, I don't know exactly what it will look like. I would say, though, that there is a significant chunk of federal money out there already in existing programs that, quite frankly, isn't working well at all for the poor children it's designed to help. So examining those options that are currently out there, providing states some flexibility with how they spend some of this existing federal funding could be a good option.
BURKEIf you look at the Title I program, which is the largest chunk of federal funding for disadvantaged children for poor school districts, it's about $15 billion or so. So there's an argument to be made for, perhaps, giving states some flexibility to allow those Title I dollars to follow children to education options of choice. Now, that doesn't get to the $12,000 or so per pupil. So thinking about other options at the state level is really critical to ultimately getting to that number.
BURKEAnd, you know, I think that that's one of the most important things for everyone to keep in mind, is that at the end of the day, the federal government is just a 10 percent stakeholder in all education financing. So between questions about good governance and federalism and just the practical reality that 90 percent of the funding currently is at the state and local level, for school choice to really be robust, it has to take place at the state level.
REHMDouglas Harris, I know you're director of Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. Tell me how you think this money would work. It sounds as though it's not a great deal per pupil.
HARRISWell, I think it's -- there are different possibilities in the way it could be used and I think, as others have said, that we don't know exactly how the money is going to used. So I think the big picture here is to look at what she's proposed and what has happened in Michigan, which is where she has the most experience, as well as with the advocacy that she's done nationally for school choice. So we don't know exactly what the details are going to look like. There are a few different possibilities.
HARRISYou know, there are tax credits. There are vouchers. There are charter schools, all of which have been supported in various way by -- in some ways the federal government and in other cases the state governments. So I think the question here is about what do we know about school choice and what effects that that's going to have from these different programs. So, you know, lots of pieces of evidence to draw from because we've been doing a lot of this for 20 years. So the charter school movement started in the '90s and this has been going on for a quarter century.
HARRISVouchers have come up in different cities, usually on a small scale over the years as well. And I think there are some patterns starting to emerge. I think, for one thing, there are some places where traditional public schools need work and that reform is necessary. And the question is how to do that. And there have really been now a split in the reform movement between two ideas. One is to have a more free market approach, which is really what DeVos has been advocating in her other work where the money follows the student, parents get to choose and they can go where they want and the government stays out of it.
HARRISOthers in the reform movement and especially the supporters of the charter schools would say, well, no, we really just don't need the government to be involved here. And I think the evidence is starting to build that that latter approach where we still do need the government involved, even if we do provide choice, the evidence is starting to support that view more.
REHMAnd what has happened, if you'll forgive the question, what has happened to the idea of good public schools for everyone?
HARRISI think everybody actually has that goal. I think the question is what a public school and I think, you know, some people would define that as a school run by, governed by a traditional school district elected by local officials. But I do think it's reasonable to think about it more broadly. We're the only country that has a system like that. So I think you can think about schools as being public if there is some government oversight and accountability over them, maybe by the state or the county or some districts have a role for the mayor in that.
HARRISWith charter schools, they have these government appointed authorizers, where the authorizers are the ones who decide which charter schools get to operate and they're the ones that become responsible. So I think everybody would agree that the goal is to have a great publically-funded school for everyone. I think where there's disagreement is over what's the role of the government in that process.
REHMEmma Brown, take us back to Betsy DeVos herself, fairly controversial figure. Tell us about her background and her approach to education.
BROWNWell, she is -- she grew up in Michigan and still lives there and is -- she came from the Prince family. Her father built an auto -- well, he built a fortune on auto supply parts business. And then, she married Dick DeVos, Jr. whose father was -- built the Amway business. And so she got into schools. She has said, through her faith, in part, she is a Christian and she visited Christian schools and started providing -- she and her husband started providing scholarships for kids to attend private schools and then came to believe that there was no way that private philanthropy was ever going to provide the scholarships to private schools that so many children, she believed, needed and could benefit from.
BROWNAnd that's sort of what triggered her activism around the country, trying to support legislators and pass legislation that would allow for public funds to go to private schools and religious schools to give kids a chance to go there who might not otherwise.
REHMAs secretary of education, however, I would wonder how much real background and education she has in moving into that position.
BROWNWell, she's been a hugely controversial choice. You are absolutely right about that. And one reason is that she's not worked in education. She's worked as an advocate. And, you know, for folks who believe that vouchers undermine our public schools and undermine sort of the promise that public schools are going to be good for everyone in every neighborhood, she represented a very extreme choice for Donald Trump. For others who believe that vouchers and choices is the way forward, you know, she represents this extraordinary opportunity to really sort of transform the way we do schooling.
BROWNAnd school -- as Lindsey said, federal government is only 10 percent of our funding, so in some ways, you know, the ability of the federal government huge policy changes on a national level is quite limited. But we've seen, over the last eight years, with the Obama administration, that -- who really leveraged the education department in a way that nobody had before to make sweeping changes to push states to make sweeping changes themselves to the standards they were teaching and their approach to teacher evaluations and other policy changes.
REHMHow does her record compare to former secretaries of education in terms of where they came from?
BROWNWell, over the last eight years, we've had Arnie Duncan and John King. Arnie Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools so he came from that background. John King was a teacher and then a principal, founded a charter school and was chief of New York State Education Department. Before that, though, we've had governors, we've had other elected officials so not everybody comes from an education background.
REHMEmma Brown, she's national education reporter for The Washington Post. Short break here, your calls, ideas when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about what lies ahead for education under a Trump administration. Here in the studio, Lindsey Burke. She's an education fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Douglas Harris is professor of economics at Tulane University, director of Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. Emma Brown is national education reporter for The Washington Post.
REHMDouglas Harris, Betsy DeVos was instrumental in designing Detroit's charter school. Talk about her role there and how successful she was.
HARRISWell, she was very instrumental in it, from an advocacy standpoint. So she gave a lot of campaign donations and had control of funding to be able to influence legislation, I think, is widely seen as being the chief architect behind the policy. It started back in the early '90s. I was actually -- I'm from that area and I was there and started to study it right from the beginning. And it's been interesting to see how it evolved. It's also been one of the oldest systems. You know, they've had charter schools now for almost 25 years. So -- and that's important partly because we think it's hard to start schools, right? And it's hard to start a new kind of school system. So giving it some time to play out is important.
HARRISAnd so now we've had some time. And I think a few different things have stood out. I think one is that -- one piece of evidence comes from the way the rest of the reform community has viewed it. So a lot of organizations are trying to work there, charter school associations nationally, other organizations that generally support that idea. And they're very skeptical of it, remarkably so. You know, I know of organizations that have tried to work there and it -- they see it as so dysfunctional that they just can't do anything. So I think the fact that you've got all these organizations that support charter reform, that are going into the city and still saying, you know, this is not going to work and this is a...
REHMWhat is it that wasn't working?
HARRISWell, it's a good question. So I think part of it is that there's nobody minding the store, right? So you've got all these different organizations that are starting charter schools. You know, there's not one organization, as there in a lot of other places, that are even kind of keeping track and overseeing the whole thing. So it's very uncoordinated, for one thing. And the result...
HARRISAnd the test scores have been complicated. So on the one hand, Detroit is by far the lowest performing district in the country. And part of the logic of the reform is that if you start charter schools -- and now about half the schools in the city are charter schools -- that it will lift all boats, that it will provide competition for the public schools. They'll get better.
REHMBut you haven't seen that happen.
HARRISNo. I mean, the city is by far the lowest performing district. It's like 10 percentile points below Cleveland, which is the next highest. It's very -- it's incredible how low it is, which is -- it's really disheartening. There have been some studies suggesting that the charter schools have been a little bit better than that. But it's a little bit worrisome. Because even the growth in the city -- so it's not just that the level is low, but if we look at the growth in the most objective tests that we have that the federal government administers there, that it's one of the slower growing districts as well. So there's other evidence that looks a little bit more positive. But when you look at it next to the best evidence and the best test scores that we have, it's questionable.
HARRISAnd there's one particular thing that I think is worth highlighting here is, when we think about oversight, is the control over enrollment. So one of the big differences between vouchers and charters is that charter schools generally are open enrollment schools. So they have to accept all comers, if there's oversight. So it's possible, then, that the schools are picking the student, kind of like the way a private school would be picking the students. So the idea is to have choice for the families. It may end up being that the schools are actually the ones choosing the students.
HARRISAnd that may make the results look better than they actually are, because then you may be picking students who are more likely to do well.
REHMSo in an op-ed piece you wrote for The New York Times, you contrasted what happened in Detroit with New Orleans. Talk about that.
HARRISRight. Sure. I mean, I think the first thing to point is that the New Orleans comparison is not the only piece of evidence here. There's a lot more to it than that. There's a whole body of evidence that I think is relevant to understanding Detroit. New Orleans is one piece of it. You know, after Katrina, there was a massive reform there. We're about to be 100 percent charter city. So there would be no traditional public schools. Essentially, we're already at the point and have been now for four or five years. And the results there have been very positive.
HARRISWhen I went down there four years ago, I was a little skeptical because, if you'd looked at school reform in other places, we'd never seen substantial improvements before. When we did see substantial improvements, you know, there was other evidence to suggest that it was teaching to the test and other things were going on that were inflating the scores. So I went in thinking, okay, well, no city had ever generated the gains that seemed to be occurring in New Orleans.
HARRISSo we've done a deep dive into research there and actually it seems to hold up, that the test scores really are higher, that it seems to reflect real achievement. We also see signs of high school graduation rates going up, college entry going up, and without a lot of the unintended consequences. So there's a centralized enrollment system. There is somebody minding the store and making sure that the enrollment process is fair.
REHMAnd I gather Betsy DeVos did not have anything to do with New Orleans charter schools.
HARRISCorrect. Right. I don't think she's...
HARRIS...she's made any statement or -- and I know she didn't have any involvement in it.
REHMAnd Lindsey Burke, a fair comparison-contrast between Detroit and New Orleans?
BURKEWell, you know, I would echo that it's certainly complicated. But, you know, if you look at the study that Douglas used in The New York Times op-ed, most of that data was pulled from the -- what's known as the CREDO Study out of Stanford University. And they looked at the outcomes in Detroit. They looked at charter school performance there. And the CREDO Study itself actually finds that Detroit charter schools are performing significantly better than their public school counterparts. And, in fact, it said that charter school students in Detroit gain over three months per year more in reading and math than their counterparts in traditional public schools. And that's pretty impressive, three months more per year than their traditional public school counterparts.
BURKESo I think that what would be an accurate description of what's happening in Detroit would to say -- would be to say that most charter schools are performing at about the same level as the traditional public schools are performing. But about half of Detroit's charters perform as well as their district counterparts. And that a very small number of those charter schools underperform. But on balance, about half perform at the same level as the traditional public school system does. And one other thing I would also add, that the CREDO Study actually calls Michigan charters a model for other communities. That's a quote from the study, that it's a model.
REHMAll right. Douglas, do you want to comment?
HARRISSure. So she's referring to the same study I was referring to when I said the results looked more positive when you looked at it. So she's looking at the high-stakes scores, the ones that are going to be more prone to teaching to the test. And also there's this issue still about selection, about who's ending up in the schools and who they're being compared with. So to say that the school -- charter schools are doing similarly well to the traditional public schools, remember that they're by far the worst public schools in the country.
HARRISSo we would -- what we would expect to see, especially in a system that has had 25 years to develop, is that the charter schools would be lifting the -- lifting all the -- sorry, making the system work better. And it's one of the oldest systems in the country and it really hasn't done that.
BROWNI think what we're hearing now, between Douglas and Lindsey, is what is -- it's a little bit of preview of a debate we're going to see now playing out during the Trump administration between all folks who favor different kinds of choice, but who see very different paths forward. You know, on one end of the spectrum, very little government involvement and allowing the market to work it's, you know, the market forces to determine whether schools stay open or closed. And on the other end of the spectrum, tighter regulation and oversight to ensure that that choices that parents have to choose from are high quality.
BROWNSo I think that this is the debate that we are now going to have. It's a bit of a different debate, perhaps, than we've been having on the national level for the last eight years.
REHMWe have an email from Peggy. Please discuss the impact of school vouchers on rural America, where choice is not an option. We are neglecting a vulnerable section of our country by withdrawing funds intended for public education. Emma.
BROWNWell, this is going -- this is a really important question, particularly given that a lot of Donald Trump's support came from our rural parts of our country. And it's true that, in a lot of rural areas, there are not right now a lot of alternatives to public schools. And so Lindsey may be able to answer this better than I. But I think the theory is that, if you introduce the option of vouchers, that schools will crop up to serve the needs of students. Or that online providers will jump into that space. Whether that happens, whether that happens in a way that gives students options that are actually better than those available to them now, is up for debate.
REHMAnd here's an email from Kenneth. Republicans have talked about abolishing the Department of Education for decades. Why don't they do it? Well, they have selected Betsy DeVos as the chair of the Department of Education. Is that what you expect, Douglas?
HARRISI don't know if they'll go that far. Nobody's made any statements on that. But I do think it's important to go back to the first question, about the rural voters and what vouchers would do in that situation. So there now have been only two studies of statewide voucher programs. Almost all of the research we have for the most part is really in urban areas. And I think that that's probably the right place to concentrate them, because it's probably where it's most likely to work. And that's what the evidence seems to suggest, that when we look at these statewide programs, not only do they not have positive effects, they actually seem to have negative effects, which is really unusual.
HARRISSo rarely, in education research, do we see evidence of negative effects of anything. But when we look at statewide voucher programs in Ohio and Louisiana, that seems to be what we're seeing.
BURKESo all of the evidence that we have suggests that choice, particularly voucher options, create attainment improvements, but particularly have positive effects on graduation rates. We know that from the District of Columbia, right here where we're sitting, that choice created a 21 percentage point impact in graduation rates. Now, the studies to which Douglas is referring come out of Louisiana. These are the first two studies that we've seen that have shown a negative impact of voucher use. But I would argue that a big part of the reason that we saw that for the first time was because of the incredibly strict and prescriptive regulatory environment that's in place in New Orleans.
BURKEIf you talk to school leaders there -- and indeed researchers have talked to private school leaders who chose both to participate in the voucher program and not to participate. Their number one reason for non-participation -- and I should note, only one-third of private schools participate in the voucher program in Louisiana, in New Orleans -- their number one reason for non-participation was fear of future regulations. And so that suggests, perhaps, that the schools that were participating were those schools that did need that voucher money. The schools that didn't, perhaps, chose to sit it out, because it wasn't worth incurring the regs that would come with voucher participation.
BURKEThat's a huge cautionary tale for policymakers, when we think about what genuine accountability means, that it does not come from top-down government mandates, that it comes from parents who are empowered to chose schools that work for their children.
REHMLindsey Burke, she's education fellow at The Heritage Foundation. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Douglas, you wanted to make a comment.
HARRISYeah. So I think this issue of regulation is really important. So I'm looking at the same study that Lindsey is looking at and it's true that the number one concern is future regulation, which suggests that they might be accepting actually some of the existing regulations, that they're worried about the future. You can't tell the government that they're never going to do anything in the future. But let's look at the specific things that they're concerned about now. One of them is having to accept all students who come in the door, that they want to be able to select their own students. But that's the problem, right?
HARRISSo what we're looking for is a system that's going to open up access, that's going to help students who are low performing. But those are the schools -- those are the students that the schools are least likely to want to serve.
REHMAll right. I want to open the phones now. Let's go first to Barbara in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the air.
BARBARAIt's wonderful to talk to you, at least by phone.
BARBARABut I have several questions.
REHMI can only -- I'm sorry, we've got so many waiting. If we could just take one.
BARBARAWell, one of the problems in Ohio is that there is a major charter school system run by a very wealthy man who makes major contributions to Republican legislators. He is actually fighting ways of being accountable to the state Department of Education. So my concern is that charter schools may be a way of diverting money from public systems, which are accountable, to the wealthy who -- wealthy entrepreneurs, who start these schools with no real oversight.
HARRISSo, I don't think the vast majority of people starting charter schools -- and I think the caller was confusing charter schools with vouchers -- and that -- so this -- people coming in to start charter schools, the people are not making a lot of money on this. So it's -- I think it's wrong. I mean you can (word?) charter schools on a lot of different things, but I think the idea that they're in it to make a lot of money is probably not the strongest suit. They do want more flexibility. Almost everybody wants flexibility in their jobs, right? People don't want to have rules. But education is a sector where the -- we have every reason to expect, just from basic economics, that letting the free market run is not going to work. It's not like other sectors.
BURKEAlso, on this question of accountability, I think it's a really important point. But we should be asking ourselves, accountability for what and to whom? And that's something that choice, whether it's through charters or voucher options or tuition tax-credit scholarships, really does a great job of doing. Providing that accountability directly to parents, not to some state government entity. And I think something that is critical to underscore is that charters can close down if not enough parents are choosing to attend or if there are measures that they're not attaining, charters shut down. And that is a feature of the charter sector, not a bug.
BURKEYou know, you would be hard pressed to point to a traditional public school that has been closed down because of underperformance. And so I think, again, that underscores the real accountability that lies in a charter or school choice model.
HARRISWell, in some charters. But, so -- what's interesting here is that she supports the version of it that doesn't have the government oversight coming in and accepting it and turning it...
REHMBy she, you mean Betsy DeVos?
BURKEBut even if it's not government oversight, we know that parents tend to close down charters before the state does. Because they exit charters that aren't working for them. And so before state regs even kick in to shut down an underperforming charter school, parents have already figured out it doesn't work for them and they exit. We know that. We know that out of Arizona and other places.
BROWNWell, I was going to say, I think we know that that's sometimes true and also sometimes not true. Here, in Washington, D.C., we have a large number of charter schools. And the head of our charter school board told me just recently that he knows that parents stay in schools that he believe and that the charter board believes are underperforming on so many different levels that they need to shut them down.
REHMEmma Brown, she's national education reporter for The Washington Post. A short break here. More of your calls, your comments, when we come back.
REHMWelcome back as we talk about the Department of Education, its person to be at the head, Betsy DeVos, what her ideas are, what charter versus voucher schools may do to a public education system. Here's a Facebook comment from Karen, who says, so let me understand. Every kid gets a voucher to go to any school he or she wants. Rich kids can drive anywhere they want, to any school they want. Middle-class kids can figure out transportation, too. But kids in the inner city will get less funding for their already underfunded, understaffed, underperforming schools, and they'll be stuck there with no choice because no one will choose to go to their schools, Emma.
BROWNWell, I think your commenter raises -- raises a really interesting point about transportation. And this is one -- you know, when you get down into the nitty gritty of choice, things like transportation are really important to determine whether families truly have choice or don't have choice. So yes, if a child living in poverty in an area where there aren't a lot of private schools available may not -- you know, could have a voucher in their pocket and not have a good way to use it at a school that's much better than the one they're already attending or at all.
REHMDoesn't this get to a question of civil rights?
BROWNThe civil rights of students to have a great education? Yeah, and I think that this is something -- I mean, as Douglas said, I think everybody believes that people should have -- children should have a great, publicly funded education, that that is a civil right, and the disagreement is over how that happens. And, you know, the transportation issue is a great one to talk about because -- because when we talk kind of in the clouds about choice versus public, you know a public school system for all, we get sometimes caught up in sort of philosophical debates.
BROWNBut these -- these things about, like, how it actually works on the ground and whether kids who need great schools can get to those great schools is really important. And so this sort of ideal that everybody's going to have a great school in their neighborhood that they can get to easily, that's a reason that it's the ideal, right?
BURKEYeah, so a lot of good points raised by the commenter, but, you know, at the end of the day, currently the way our education system is set up disadvantages poor children in so many ways. And families can currently exercise choice if they can afford to buy a home in a nice district. That's particularly the case with wealthier families.
BURKEAnd so this is about giving the same opportunities to those poor families who currently don't have options. And, you know, again I would hazard a guess that the minute we shift to a system where we are funding the child instead of the physical school building, and poor children are empowered because they're walking around all of a sudden with $12,000 in their pocket that schools will quite quickly come to areas all across the country, whether it's rural or urban.
REHMThat figure of $12,000 per student has certainly been questioned. Go ahead, Douglas.
HARRISSo I think the mistake here is equating choice with options, right. So the logic here with the free market approach is if you just give parents choice that everything will work itself out. But education doesn't work that way for some of the reasons you've already raised, and the reader did, as well, that transportation is going to be an issue. If they can't get to the school, they don't have a choice. If they don't have information about the quality of schools. Somebody has to do that.
HARRISAnd, you know, some -- there are only going to be so many schools. Some family is going to be choosing a school, which is going to seem like a good thing, that is nearby or that has childcare for them. It doesn't mean that they're necessarily satisfied with it or that's -- that that's the best you can do, but it's not going to close down then because you have all these -- all these families that are going to be choosing it anyway, but that, choice and options are not the same thing. You need the government to step in to solve that.
BURKEThe number one reason that families choose schools, it is never how that school performs on a state test. It is, is this school a safe school, do I like the teaches who are there, those sort of intangibles. Do I just feel like this is a good fit? When you survey parents, the very last point that they raise is how did the school do on a state test. That's just not even in the cards. They are looking for all of these other factors.
BURKEAnd so I think it's rather reductionist to boil down school quality just to how a school does on a state test.
HARRISWho is doing that?
BURKEMany, many folks are doing that.
HARRISYes, but that's not -- it seems like you were responding to me, and that's not what I'm saying at all.
BURKEBut I think that's where the debate is now on accountability is do we consider accountability a blunt state testing instrument, or is it, again, families who are empowered to choose schools that work for them for a wide variety of reasons, whether it's safety or extracurriculars or otherwise.
HARRISI mean, I think the debate we're having is not about whether to have choice, it's about whether there's going to be anything else. And I think it's one to have a principled stand on choice. I think choice makes sense. We have all sorts of reasons to think that's a good idea. But if that's all we have, it's not going to work.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Catherine, who says you've been talking about charters. Please talk about Betsy DeVos' effort to funnel taxpayer dollars into private religious organizations, specifically fundamentalist Christian schools like those to which she sent her own children, Emma.
BROWNWell her advocacy has mostly been around vouchers all around the country. So she has -- she has, through the American Federation for Children, been active in many state legislatures to put forward programs that will do just what your questioner said, which is funnel public dollars into tuition for private schools. In many cases those private schools are religious schools. They are not only Christian schools, they can be -- they can be schools for Muslim kids or schools for Jewish kids.
BROWNI mean, in practice, for example, like the Indiana voucher program is the largest single statewide program in the country, championed by Mike Pence, our incoming vice president, and supported by Betsy DeVos, and yes, most of the -- most of the money does go to Catholic, Lutheran and other Christian schools.
REHMSo whatever happened to separation of church and state?
BROWNWell this comes up -- you know, there's a legal challenge -- there's been a legal challenge for almost every voucher program, I think. Indiana's survived because it survived that legal challenge that there was a violation of church and state because the judge said, you know what, the beneficiaries are the families, not the schools, and so that is how that program continues to exist today.
BURKEAnd just to underscore what Emma said, that's exactly right. The Supreme Court has considered this, and if you look at how voucher programs are structured or tuition tax credit scholarships or the new school choice option that's out there today known as Education Savings Accounts, courts have consistently said that these are funds that fund the family, that fund the child, that that family is then empowered to choose, and if they select a religious school that -- that that is fine, but in no way is it the state or government funding religion directly, that it's that indirect choice that families are making.
REHMAll right, let's go to Pat in Clemens, North Carolina, you're on the air.
PATHello, can you hear me?
REHMSure can, go right ahead.
PATYes, I'm a retired North Carolina teacher, 44 years of experience, and North Carolina has tried to do this for years, and I even questioned a legislature several years ago about whether voucher schools or charter schools had to take children, whether they wanted to or not, and the legislature told me no, it's a private school, they don't have to take anyone who they don't want to take, which leaves children with special needs, children with behavior problems, children -- ESL children, et cetera, et cetera, in the public schools.
PATAnd these private schools are getting public school money because they're reducing funding of public schools, and giving, yes, maybe a greater education, I don't personally think so, but it's because they do not have to meet the needs of the population, and I do not think that that is what our public school advocates have advocated since their existence.
REHMAll right, Douglas.
HARRISSo I think this is a really good example, where you need somebody minding the store, right. So there are some students who have special needs that a school may not open up through the market to serve those needs. Somebody needs to make sure that there's a school to serve every child. Some cases it's special education, English language learners. There are all sorts of special needs. And a lot of the private schools have explicit requirements. If there are discipline issues that a child has, they can kick them out and so on. So you can't just have the whole system running like that, otherwise you're going to end up with a lot of people falling behind the cracks.
REHMAnd a tweet. How will a voucher system under the new president affect low teacher compensation and teacher shortages, Emma?
BROWNIt's so hard to know anything is going to work in the next administration just because we have so very few details at this point. But I think -- I'm not sure if the tweeter was talking about low teacher compensation in public schools, I imagine so, and I don't know. I have no idea how that would -- how that would play into it.
REHMI gather that voucher schools and charter schools can pay anything they want.
HARRISYeah generally they can pay what they want. There are some charter schools that have more restrictions on them, but they have a lot of flexibility. And I think part of the value of this potentially is that schools can have flexibility and use it in productive ways, but especially with voucher schools they're to -- part of the motivation here is to get rid of the unions and to let the school leaders drive these decisions.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Lindsey, I know you wanted to add something.
BURKEYeah, well, you know, I think on the special needs question, it's a really important question, but, you know, if you look around at the options that are growing across the country, some of the fastest-growing school choice options are those programs that are specifically geared toward children who have special needs. Whether it's in Florida or Arizona, across the country we consistently see that that is one of the first categories of eligibility that school choice programs often cater to are kids who have special needs. So I think that that's an important point to...
REHMBut doesn't that kind of segregate children with special needs into...
BURKEI wouldn't think about it like that at all. We have schools that are popping up that are specifically designed to meet the very unique learning needs of these children, and that's been really exciting, to go in and see and explore these schools.
REHMBut I thought the whole point of moving special needs kids into public schools so that they would be other kids, I mean what happened to that?
BURKESure, and that's been a big debate, but what we have seen consistently is that parents in traditional public schools with children with special needs too often end up engaging in a process that doesn't work well for the family or for the child, that sometimes it becomes a rather contentious fight, quite frankly, going through the IEP process, the individual's -- the Individualized Education Plan process, that that can be a pretty stressful process that in the end doesn't actually end up getting the services to the children when they need it.
HARRISThe research on special education is pretty clear that special ed students are much better off than they were before, before we had rules, we before we made sure they got extra resources.
HARRISAnd the second thing is, you know, going back to this issue of segregation that there is also evidence that having inclusion, having those students in the classroom with regular students, that that's also better for them in the long run. And then there's another larger issue about segregation. I mean, one thing we can only -- we can very much expect from a system like this is that the -- not just on special education but in a wide variety (unintelligible) that schools will become more segregated they are on probably all dimensions because choice tends to separate people.
HARRISAnd so it's not just about the market working. There's this larger societal concern about having people mix and have people have, like, have experience with people with different backgrounds.
REHMDo you believe that Betsy DeVos is the right person to head the Department of Education?
HARRISNo, I think the ideas that she's been espousing very consistently, she's got a very clear agenda. It's just an agenda that has all sorts of reasons to -- going against it.
REHMAnd how would you pinpoint that agenda?
HARRISSo I would say it's choice. You can boil down the agenda into that one word. She wants parental choice. And again, I think that's a starting point for agenda in places where traditional public schools have failed, and that's not all places. I think probably the vast majority of the country, what we're talking about here is that, you know, the traditional district is still the right thing. It's in the places where it's not working that we should do something, and -- but we have to do it right. We can't just reform of any sort. Just choice is not going to solve this problem.
BROWNYou know, I think that is -- that is what she's known for, and I think that there are a lot of other things that the Education Department does right now, and there's a lot of questions about how she's going to handle those other functions of the department, everything from student loans, student aid in a higher ed space and -- to the Office for Civil Rights, which is a big part of what the Education Department does and has been controversial under President Obama. They've been quite aggressive, going after schools for their handling of sexual assault notably.
BROWNBut also they just handle -- they handle thousands of complaints about every kind of discrimination, and so there is a real concern within the civil rights community that Betsy DeVos will shrink that department or reverse -- reverse Obama administration policies and a hope, frankly, from other folks who feel the Obama administration has overstepped its authority that finally this OCR will be brought back to -- you know, brought to heel.
REHMHow do you see it Lindsey?
BURKEYeah, I think Emma's exactly right. I mean, the OCR has been quite aggressive in pursuing some of these cases but to the point where, you know, they've gone after programs like the Louisiana voucher program there because it modestly changed the racial makeup of schools even when that makeup went in the direction of more diversity. So I -- and there's also evidence along the same lines that they've done that in Wisconsin, as well. So I think your point's well-taken that they've been quite aggressive in pursuing things but not always to the benefit of the kids who are participating in these programs.
REHMSo do you think Betsy DeVos is the right person to lead the Department of Education?
BURKEWell, I would second what Douglas said, that choice will probably, certainly be a big part of her agenda moving forward. And look, I think it's about time we try something different. We have decades of evidence now that a government-run school system that functions far more like a monopoly has not done a service to either poor children or middle-income families, really to any family who is assigned to a school that we have now four and a half, almost five decades of increasing federal intervention in education and really nothing to show for it.
BURKEWe have just seen this past week flatlining PISA scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress data are flat from the 1970s forward. We haven't seen improvements in graduation rates for disadvantaged children over time, and we're still sort of in the middle of the pack internationally. And if you consider the fact that the federal government has effectively tripled its overhead costs since that time, I would've hoped that we would've gotten a little more out of it, and we haven't.
REHMAll right, we'll have to leave it at that, Lindsey Burke, Douglas Harris, Emma Brown, thank you all so much.
BROWNThank you, Diane.
HARRISThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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