With the Senate's final vote on Betsy DeVos likely taking place on Monday, the spotlight on school choice shines brighter and brighter. Thursday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held its first public hearing of the 115th Congress on "Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice."
Republicans focused on showing that choice isn't about public versus private schools, and the hearing featured testimony from former Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, D.C. public school student with disabilities parent Almo Carter, charter school leader Kevin Kubacki, and tax-credit scholarship parent Nina Cherry.
In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita, R-Ind., addressed Betsy DeVos saying, "Mrs. DeVos has dedicated her life to helping some of our nation's most disadvantaged students. Because she stands firmly for parental choice, she is being attacked and maligned across the country."
Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, noted her frustration "that advocates for public education see parental choice across the full range of available educational options as such a threat. ... We [supporters of educational choice] do not oppose public education."
Instead of concentrating on the school type, Williams encouraged members to focus on policies that promote educational fit: "What we should be trying to do is put parents and guardians in the position to match needs [of children] with schools. Kids are very, very different. ... There is enough room, demand and challenge for both traditional public schools and charters and private schools to be present and provide opportunity for our students."
Nina Cherry is a parent who needed such an opportunity for her children. After going through financial hardship and the loss of their home, Cherry testified that the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program provided her family "with the hope and stability my children badly needed. ... For parents, it's not about public schools versus private schools. We are just looking for schools that meet our children's needs."
Democrats, however, raised a variety of concerns about school choice. Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott, D-Va., questioned whether it provided better academic outcomes: "If you have no evidence that [vouchers are] actually working, it's a challenge of why we should be spending money on that."
While it is difficult to make apples to apples comparisons, the research that exists on private school choice shows generally positive outcomes for students who participate and for those who remain in public schools. Of the 18 gold-standard studies, 14 studies found that voucher programs improve student outcomes, two found no visible effect, and two studies found negative results for students.
The two studies that found negative results examined the first year of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to low-income students in struggling public schools. Why this program showed negative results is up for debate, and State Superintendent John White has said that forthcoming results show steady improvements among participating students.
Democratic members also cited concerns surrounding student eligibility. Some members alleged that private school choice programs merely subsidize students who already have the ability to attend a private school. However, private school choice programs typically require students to be previously enrolled in a public school to be eligible. Furthermore, the vast majority of state programs target low-income students, students in failing schools, or students with disabilities.
Multiple Democratic members touted another well-known, perennial argument: Private school choice programs drain money from public schools. However, private school choice programs are often funded by "new money," not out of the state's existing education funding, or are funded by private dollars (e.g., tax-credit scholarship programs).
Williams explained that scholarship amounts are only a fraction of what a public school would receive for that child. In reality, public schools and districts are left with more funding per child to educate the students they serve. Arguments to the contrary were "simply a fundamental philosophical difference," Williams said.
While there was much debate on the type of choices that should be available to parents, there was some agreement on the need for options. Subcommittee Ranking Member Jared Polis, D-Colo., said, "When it comes to education, a one-size-fits-all model simply doesn't work, and choice is important." The question remains, how much choice, and, specifically, should private schools be included?
McKenzie Snow (@mcksnow) is an education choice policy analyst at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
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