The False Promise Of ‘School Choice Week’

Yesterday marked the start of School Choice Week, an event conjured up by the forces that want to divert as much money as possible from the public school system to private (mostly religious) institutions.

School Choice Week is now seven years old, but past events haven’t persuaded Americans to embrace vouchers. Organizers usually find a washed-up band to endorse the idea – a few years ago, it was the Jonas Brothers – and every year there is, for some inexplicable reason, a school choice dance.

Rallies are held, and government officials are asked to issue proclamations. Most years it’s all rather pedestrian – but this year, advocates are excited because they believe they have some momentum. Sadly, they may be right about that.

Americans United believes your taxes should not subsidize private religious schools.

President Donald Trump has proposed a nationwide school voucher plan at a price tag of a staggering $20 billion. Like a lot of Trump proposals, the details on this one are sketchy, but he appears to be serious about it and has said he’ll unveil the plan during his first 100 days in office.

Trump has appointed Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire known for her advocacy of vouchers, to secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos’ views are alarming. As we learned during her confirmation hearing, she won’t foreclose the idea of privatizing public education in America.

Take a moment to reflect on how radical that is. Public schools educate 90 percent of our children, but that doesn’t faze DeVos. She’s more than indifferent to public schools – she’s hostile to the entire concept. DeVos and other advocates of privatizing education are motivated largely by ideology. In their view, a public school system can’t be any good because it’s, well, public, and the mysterious thing known as “market forces” will always do better.

The American people know better. Whenever they’ve had the opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through ballot referenda, voters have turned them down every time – often by lopsided margins. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan, for example, voters said a loud no to vouchers in 2000 by a vote of 69-31 percent.

Voters are smart enough to know that vouchers simply don’t work. Objective studies of existing plans have shown that students taking part in them do no better academically than their peers in public schools. Sometimes they do worse.

Vouchers often go to private schools that lack accountability. Many of these schools, especially those that are religious in nature, teach controversial ideas like creationism and false views of American history; many are vociferously anti-LGBTQ. Students with special needs are often ill served or left behind entirely.

Of course, the core objection of Americans United is that vouchers force all taxpayers to support sectarian education. Under voucher plans, we’re all compelled to prop up religious schools that may teach theology with which we disagree or doctrines we find offensive. This is nothing more than a modern-day version of a church tax. It’s simply wrong

But the most misleading thing about School Choice Week is its name. The truth is, there’s really no “choice” in school choice – at least not for parents. The people who own and operate private schools have all of the choice. They can expel or deny admission to a child if he or she is the “wrong” religion, has parents who are gay or has special needs that the school doesn’t feel like dealing with. If a private school decides it doesn’t want to admit a child, even a stack of vouchers won’t change that.

Despite all of these problems, we’re going to see a big push for vouchers from Trump and DeVos. To fight back, it’s best to arm yourself with some facts now. A good place to start is the website of the National Coalition for Public Education, a group co-chaired by AU that comprises more than 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations devoted to the support of public schools – and that means stopping vouchers.

Educate yourself about School Choice Week, and take action by telling your senators and representative in Congress that vouchers are bad public policy.

The more you learn about School Choice Week, the more you realize what a scam it is.