Despite impressive efforts by teachers and supporters of public schools, it appears that Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as the next Secretary of Education. We can take comfort in the fact that DeVos will not be the first Secretary of Education to be unqualified for the job and not the first to support the growth of charter schools either (see Arne Duncan). Given the wrecking ball that has been Trump’s first week in office, however, one has to wonder what their first demolition project for public education will be? Will it be a Twitter gag? A massive budget cut? Immigration raids in kindergarten classrooms? More likely it will be the marketing of school choice and vouchers on steroids. I have already seen slick videos promoting school choice pop up on my Facebook feed. Here is one from PragerU (a media platform that promotes conservative values) featuring the California teacher who sued to make union dues optional https://www.prageru.com/courses/political-science/why-good-teachers-want-school-choice. I have to admit, as a parent, this video is pretty convincing. But what is the reality behind the promise of school choice and vouchers?
Let’s first tackle the notion of vouchers. It sounds great in theory. Public funds allotted per pupil will be attached to my child and my child will be able to attend an amazing school of my choice. My reality trying to use the Florida pre-K voucher, however, has been nothing but a bitter disappointment. After spending several homes worth of money on child care over the last eight years, I’m desperate for a way to save money on preschool. The first disappoint about the Florida VPK voucher was that it only covers half a day worth of preschool. What parent works four hours a day? So I will still be footing a signifiant portion of the bill for my preschooler’s education. I thought I would at least be able to save a few hundred dollars a month by registering him at a preschool that accepts the VPK voucher. Therein lies bitter disappointment number two, not many preschools actually accept the VPK voucher. Any preschool that I wanted to send my child to pretty much laughed in my face when I asked if they took the VPK voucher. The schools that did not respond with a snooty, “Oh, no we don’t accept THOSE,” explained that they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of the paperwork or standardized testing tied to government vouchers. Since the private preschools where I wanted to send my child won’t accept the vouchers, my only hope is that I win the lottery for free preschool at my neighborhood public school. So much for government vouchers saving me money and giving me quality schooling options.
I can only predict that vouchers for primary and secondary schools will be equally useless. The state of Florida allocates roughly $7,000 per pupil so you can expect any vouchers parents receive to be worth approximately $7,000. I got news for you parents, there are no private schools that charge only $7,000 a year. The cheapest private school I’ve encountered is a Catholic school for $15,000 a year. The more expensive prep schools can cost up to $30,000. You think those poor inner city children attending the “failing” neighborhood school have parents that are going to be able to shell out another $8,000 a year for a quality private school? And just like those snooty preschools that either don’t want the sort of child that comes attached to the voucher or the paperwork or the testing that also comes attached to the voucher, just because you “choose” a school doesn’t mean they have to choose you.
Florida is about to enter the unbridled world of public school choice across county lines in the coming school year and we will soon find out how the promise of “choice” works out when parents have the right to send their child to any public school in the state of Florida (provided they are not at capacity). Therein lies the catch, most schools that parents would want to send their children to are already at capacity. Each school district is allowed to define “at capacity” in their own way. So don’t expect to have that much “choice” when sending your children to a school outside their designated local school boundary either.
I don’t know about the rest of the parents out there, but I have no interest in driving 45 minutes to Boca Raton twice a day so my child can attend an “A” rated school anyways. Traffic in South Florida is bad enough, we don’t need to worsen it by making parents drive 30 miles out of their way twice a day so their child can go to a school of their choice. Our kids are obese and sit on their behinds more than any other previous generation, the last thing we should be encouraging them to do is spend hours everyday commuting to a school with a better reputation when they could easily walk to their local school instead. If it were up to me, my kids would attend an excellent neighborhood school that they could walk to in the morning and walk home from in the afternoon. That would be my first choice. That would be most parents’ choice and that’s why real estate values of homes within walking distance of A rated public schools are much higher than neighborhoods with poorly rated public school options. Does anyone think that poor single working moms who probably have to take the bus to multiple jobs are really going to be able to drop off and pick up their kids from schools miles away from where they live? As we are beginning to see, the convincing sales pitch of “school choice” is not much of a choice at all when put into practice.
And who is to say that having multiple options is all that great if all of your choices suck? When I go to the grocery store to buy yogurt I’m confronted with hundreds of options: zero fat yogurt, sugar free yogurt, yogurt I can suck out of a tube or drink from a bottle, yogurt that promises to taste like key lime pie. But all I want is some full fat plain yogurt where the only ingredient listed is milk and I can’t find it. I have hundreds of options, but none of them are what I want. I can see school choice working out the same way. All I want is a nice local public school that my children can walk to and become friends with the children that live in their neighborhood and get some sense of community with a broad range of extra curricular activities. Apparently that seems to be what most parents would choose if given the choice according to an article in the Palm Beach Post that recently ran citing figures that show more parents are now “choosing” their local public schools over charter schools http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/news/more-pbc-parents-choosing-traditional-public-schools-over-charters/QFO9gh4c4x5EJ3PDzxuiRI/.
So buyers beware. The promise of school choice and vouchers which will surely be part of the Betsy DeVos education agenda may sound appealing at first but may actually offer you worse options in the long run. The nice thing about parental “choice” is that it works both ways. We may find that when given a choice, the majority of parents continue to choose their local public schools.