Jim Clark: What does the Trump dynasty portend for K-12 education? (opinion)
January 19, 2017
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King is a strong supporter of a combination of government schools and charter schools. He does not like school vouchers (government funded scholarships, also called "tax credit scholarships" and "education savings accounts" among other descriptions).
The Trump Administration's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, agrees with Dr. King about charter schools. but is also a strong advocate for vouchers. Both have interesting backgrounds.
Dr. King's parents were teachers. They both died before he was 12 and he was raised by family members. He credits New York public schools with saving both his life and career.
He went on to earn degrees from Columbia, Yale and Harvard, taught school, and then served as director of a management organization operating high-performing charter schools in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
He became New York commissioner of education before being tapped by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan as his assistant. President Obama appointed King Secretary about a year ago on Duncan's departure.
Ms. DeVos is a Michigan billionaire, with no professional experience in schools, whose passion is spending her money to improve education. She served on Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education. DeVos (and Trump) wants every child living in poverty to have a government funded scholarship of $12,000 toward the school of his or her choice.
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Adding local flavor, last session Nevada's Republican dominated Legislature passed an education savings account bill. Liberal organizations brought suit, and Nevada's Supreme Court approved the measure, subject to minor legislative corrections. The 2017 Nevada Legislature is dominated by Democrats, but our governor is still Republican so enacting the corrections is likely to be a pitched battle.
Is King or DeVos right about vouchers? To get a "clean" opinion, you have to look to Sweden. In 1992, the then-conservative government adopted a universal voucher plan so every student has a free choice of government-run schools or private/religious schools.
The program was so popular, the Socialist government retained it when they returned to power. The same amount is spent on each student whether at public or private school. About 20% of Swedish students use vouchers.
In the U.S., the answer is mixed and the subject politically volatile. The National Education Association and other teacher unions are firmly opposed, while education choice groups (and Secretary designate DeVos) are unqualifiedly in favor.
The problem is that unlike Sweden, there is no "universal voucher" program in the U.S. (Nevada's is close but not yet law). The earliest program was adopted in Milwaukee and was available only to minority poverty level students.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted voucher programs, again aimed at minority poverty level students. In New York, frustration with teacher unions and Democratic opposition prompted a group of philanthropists to form a scholarship charity, but funding limitations required use of a lottery system to qualify.
The Wall Street Journal reported that this program had a positive impact on African Americans who had higher math scores and college enrollments, but had little impact on Hispanic students.
A Washington, D.C., program had a positive effect on reading scores and graduation rates. In Louisiana, voucher students scored worse academically, possibly for lack of private school options.
Perhaps the answer goes beyond just academic improvement. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, appearing on PBS's "Frontline," said: "Low income families who participated in our (voucher) studies tell us that discipline is much better, there's less fighting, there's less cheating and less racial conflict … I think it's time for the rest of us to sit up and listen." He recommends that research continue.
Since Trump and DeVos are in the driver seat, it probably will.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.