vying for vouchers

Could Donald Trump’s school voucher bonanza become a reality in New York City?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

When President-elect Donald Trump announced Betsy DeVos as his pick to lead the U.S. education department, one thing became clear: His stated interest in channeling public dollars into private schools would be championed by a full-throated believer in privatization.

But could Trump’s promise to launch a $20 billion national voucher program for low-income children — bolstered by billions in additional state funding — ever take hold in New York City?

The short answer is yes, according to education experts, though it would likely face a number of political, logistical, and legal obstacles that would make a large exodus of public school students into New York City’s private schools unlikely.

One central challenge is the state legislature, which probably wouldn’t approve the billions of dollars necessary to implement a competitive voucher program.

Under Trump’s proposal, which is light on details, states would have to pony up to make the program work. Assuming Trump finds $20 billion to spend on vouchers, perhaps by reallocating Title I funding, that would by itself yield less than $2,000 per student living under the federal poverty line nationwide. That leaves much of the funding burden on the states — so if the legislature refused to support the program, it would limit the program’s reach (after all, $2,000 wouldn’t buy you much private school).

A voucher program in New York “would require a lot of political support, more so than is here now,” said Aaron Pallas, an education professor at Teachers College. He noted that the state legislature has even refused to approve a much softer measure to make certain donations to private schools tax deductible. “It’s unlikely a DeVos appointment is going to change that political calculus,” he said.

The state legislature would likely also have to overcome an unusual alliance: politically influential teacher unions and charter operators who might unite over the fear of losing public funding.

But even if the legislature did fund the program, state law could bar that money from going to the vast majority of the city’s private schools. That’s because the state constitution in New York — and roughly three quarters of all states — currently prohibits funneling public money into religious schools, according to David Bloomfield, an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

In New York City, 616 of the city’s 810 private schools are religious (76 percent), according to state data, meaning the pool of schools that could accept vouchers may be limited. (An important caveat, Bloomfield noted, is the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal funding can be used on religious schools, leaving open the possibility that parents could use federal money to send their kids to religious schools. Still, federal funding alone is unlikely to give parents enough purchasing power to compete in the education free market Trump’s proposal envisions.)

Even if a voucher program cleared all of those roadblocks, “There would also be a capacity issue,” said Sean Corcoran, an education and economics professor at New York University. “To my knowledge, there are not a lot of private schools with extra space.”

Despite those obstacles, however, a voucher program in New York City is far from impossible. For one thing, there are lots of private schools (roughly 20 percent of the city’s students already attend them). And vouchers have even been tried, to some extent: In the late 1990s New York City experimented with foundation-funded vouchers, though they did not produce dramatic gains in student achievement.

“I think it’s actually more of a threat than most people think,” Bloomfield said. “Even without a state supplement, [federal dollars] could provide a subsidy for families who are looking to opt out of the public school system.”

Without specifics about how much the vouchers could be worth, it’s hard to predict the extent to which they could incentivize families to make different education decisions. But, Bloomfield said, if the Trump administration were to reduce Title I funding in favor of vouchers, the city could see a reduction in the “quality of public schools [that would] drive more students to the private market.”

Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies education inequality, echoed that thought. “Even a moderately funded voucher program would give parents some options,” she said. “I don’t think we can just write it off as not plausible.”

Though Potter noted vouchers are “highly unlikely” to get much political support in New York City, the effects of a modest program could be noticeable.

“The biggest risk of a private school voucher program is the public accountability that ensures that parents are really getting access to quality options, and ensuring kids of different backgrounds have a chance to learn together falls by the wayside,” Potter said.

“There would be a lot of political opposition to it, but as with [the Obama administration’s] Race to the Top, there are a lot of things states will do for the money.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”