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Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos and school choice: Eight essential reads

What’s the evidence on school choice programs? Phil Roeder, CC BY

Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, was questioned on a range of education issues during her confirmation hearing this week. Central to the debate is her major role in supporting school choice policies in her home state.

Her views on this issue are consistent with Trump’s, who during his campaign promised US$20 billion in federal funding for school choice. During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump Jr. laid out a critique of the U.S. public education system:

“You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.”

We turn to The Conversation’s archives to find out what the research says about school choice. And, who is Betsy Devos, anyway?

A billionaire and advocate

Betsy DeVos has never held public office, and neither she nor her children have ever attended a public school. This is unprecedented in the 35-year history of the position of secretary of education.

Her nomination has stirred up questions about her billionaire background and qualifications to serve.

Before her nomination, DeVos spent two decades working in education, primarily advocating for school choice in Michigan. The results of these policies have been mixed, writes Dustin Horbeck of Miami University.

“Stanford University released a study that claims that charter schools in Detroit have a slight edge over public schools. Conversely, a more recent study from New York City’s Independent Budget Office questions whether choice programs actually benefit lower income students.”

When answers depend on the question asked

“School choice” describes policies that allow families to enroll their children in schools other than the ones assigned to them by the public system.

In certain cases, parents may receive state funding – known as school vouchers – to send their children to schools of their choice.

Views on school voucher programs vary widely. As Cornell University’s Glenn Altschuler explains, there have been school voucher programs since the 19th century, but it is in the past 20 years that the movement has gained steam.

The question is, do school vouchers improve student outcomes?

Michigan State University scholar Joshua Cowen says there is no simple answer:

“What we know about school vouchers depends on what we ask. And what we ask should be informed not only by traditional academic outcomes, such as test scores, but also by a new understanding of the many different ways that schools can contribute to student success.”

Are charters good or bad?

Charter schools offer another way of providing options to parents. These public schools are more autonomous than traditional schools. They are often organized around an educational mission or philosophy.

But, as Cowen writes, not all charter schools are created equally:

“Charters’ governance structure – who can operate a charter and what kind of oversight they face – varies by state. For example, while charter schools in some states are managed by nonprofit organizations, in other states they are run for a fee by for-profit companies.”

Success rates vary. As Cowen points out in a second article:

“One recent study of schools in 27 states containing 95 percent of the nation’s charter students found charter advantages overall, but not necessarily in every state. … Such differences are at least partly due to differences in state laws defining what constitutes a charter school.”

Among concerns about charter schools is trend that has recently emerged – cyber charter schools. David Baker and Bryan Mann of Pennsylvania State University sift through the data on this new hybrid between online learning and the charter school model. The outlook isn’t very good.

“Researchers found these trends across almost all states that they studied: They found lower learning growth in reading in 14 out of the 17 states, and 17 out of 17 states in math.”

Contentious debate

As to Donald Trump Jr.‘s call to look to other countries, Harvard’s Pasi Sahlberg gives us an insider’s look at classrooms in the country that is deemed to have the best school results in the world: Finland.

“In my previous job as director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, I had an opportunity to host scores of education delegations from the United States. … A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.”

This difficult debate may be best summed up in the words of University of Colorado’s Kevin Welner.

“Imagine a police officer pulls you over and tickets you for speeding. She tells you she measured you going 50.5 MPH in a 50 MPH zone. No, you reply, my speedometer shows that I was going exactly 49.5. The entire discussion would be absurd, since neither your speedometer nor the officer’s radar gun is sufficiently accurate to support the opposing claims, and a 0.5 MPH difference is not practically meaningful.”

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