The Arkansas legislature barely beat back a school voucher-style program in the recent session, falling only a handful of votes short of a pilot project to give “scholarships” to private schools funded by tax credits given to taxpayers who’d prefer to support private schools than general state government with their tax money.
During the debate, Florida was cited as an exemplar of the school “choice” offering known as scholarship accounts — just a PR-crafted alternative to the unpopular term “school vouchers.” In either case, public money winds up paying for kids to attend private schools. And what schools. Check out the Washington Post, which looks at Florida’s program now paying for some 100,000 children.
But there is scant evidence that these students fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And there is a perennial debate about whether the state should support private schools that are mostly religious, do not require teachers to hold credentials and are not required to meet minimal performance standards. Florida private schools must administer one of several standardized tests to scholarship recipients, but there are no consequences for consistently poor results.
“After the students leave us, the public loses any sense of accountability or scrutiny of the outcomes,” said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County public schools. He wonders what happens to the 25,000 students from the county who receive the scholarships. “It’s very difficult to gauge whether they’re hitting the mark.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice, does not seem to be bothered by that complaint.
Students play chess during an enrichment class at Academy Prep, a private middle school in Tampa that includes students from low-income families who receive tax-credit scholarships to attend. Academy Prep students go to school 11 hours per day and nearly 11 months per year. (Courtesy of Academy Prep Center of Tampa)
She is driven instead by the faith that children need and deserve alternatives to traditional public schools. At a recent public forum, DeVos said her record in office should be graded on expansion of choice-friendly policies. She did not embrace a suggestion that she be judged on academic outcomes. “I’m not a numbers person,” she said.
This is the same faith-based outlook that drives the “choice” movement in Arkansas, exemplified lately by Walton-financed lobbying to keep the Little Rock School District in state control and to encourage interdistrict transfers, vouchers and charter schools. Accountability is scant in the Arkansas programs, too. The state, which insists on controlling the Little Rock School District, is repeatedly reluctant shut down poor charter schools. The voucher legislation provided little in the way of meaningful accountability or assurance that money was going to a school worthy of the name.
Money talks. Billionaire Betsy DeVoss, a “choice” champion who’s helped wreck Michigan public schools, is Trump’s education secretary. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is such a devotee he refused to allow the Little Rock School District to return to local control.
The damage isn’t limited to Florida. Arizona is another laboratory for popular “choice” options, again owing to the Republican Party dominance there. Read about the lack of accountability, the lack of fiscal controls and the resulting predations of scam artists. Oh, and choice isn’t producing much in education, unless you count the cream-skimmers who aren’t impeded by the special, non-English and desperately poor students found more often in real public schools.
Clip and save. The Waltons and Kochs have the money to play the long game. They’ll be back with more raids on the state treasury.