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Expert opinion

The voucher scheme … again … really?

by Leslie T. Fenwick

The moral imperative to support deep and lasting change in urban communities and reclaim public schools cannot be driven by vouchers, for-profit charters, mayoral control, Teach for America, and other billionaire-funded schemes.

The 2017 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools indicates that 52 percent of all poll respondents oppose vouchers. In fact, white and nonwhite respondents agree about the use of vouchers: 61 percent of whites and 61 percent of nonwhites say if vouchers were an option, they should only be used for public schools. 

The segregationist history of vouchers is rarely discussed, but we know that white resistance to the law (established by Brown v. Board of Education) led many dual-system states to establish vouchers and tuition grants for white students to allow them to attend segregated private schools at a time when public schools were ordered to desegregate.

Despite its racist and anti-democratic history, today’s school voucher is promulgated through sympathetic media campaigns that prominently feature the faces of black and brown children. These advertisements raid low socioeconomic status (SES) communities of color advancing the voucher brand under the egalitarian language of choice and opportunity. As a point of fact, however, voucher programs steal tax dollars from local public schools, deposit those tax dollars in profiteers’ bank accounts, and spark public school closures in black, brown, and poor neighborhoods

Interestingly, the voucher brand is supported by the nation’s top billionaires who have invested billions of dollars in expanding the programs. Do these billionaires remember the original intent of vouchers as a mechanism to divert public tax dollars away from serving “colored schoolchildren”? Let’s see.

U.S. Secretary of Education (and multimillionaire) Betsy DeVos has hailed Indiana’s voucher program as a model for other states, but here are some troubling facts. Almost half (44 percent) of the Indiana students receiving vouchers are from families whose incomes top $55,000. In fact, in 2016 only about 20 percent of Indiana schoolkids who received vouchers were from families earning less than $25,000 annually. (The 2016 federal poverty guidelines are $24,600 for a family of four.) And, 60 percent of Indiana voucher kids are white. So much for liberating poor black and brown kids from underperforming “government schools” (which is the term for American public schools cited by the education secretary's husband, Dick DeVos).

There is a lot of discussion in research and news reports about black Americans supporting vouchers, but few reports examine what may be energizing the support -- if it at all exists. Here’s what’s true: Black parents’ frustration with the quality of public schools is at an all-time righteous high. Though many surveys show that black and white parents’ commitment to their children’s schooling is comparable, black parents are more likely to report dissatisfaction with the school their child attends. According to surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), fewer black parents (47 percent) than white parents (64 percent) report being very satisfied with the academic standards, order, and discipline at their child’s school. 

Black and poor parents and their children (more than any other groups of parents and children) are living with inadequacies in funding and facilities, higher percentages of noncertified teachers, and a greater likelihood of having a revolving door of novice and ineffective principals in their schools.

Additionally, black students who attend low-SES schools are 70 percent more likely than their white and affluent peers to have a teacher who is not certified to teach math, English, social studies or science teaching those subjects and who does not have a college major or minor in the subject taught.

This reality is especially problematic because 84 percent of black students are in states that require a high-stakes high school graduation test. By contrast, 66 percent of white students attend schools in high-stakes test states. (How can the nation continue to raise the bar on what we expect schoolchildren to know and demonstrate on standardized tests and lower the bar on who teaches them?)

The combination of pervasive negative factors makes regular public schools a crippling option for many black and poor parents and their children. The problem is so bad that these parents are desperate to survive their community’s school deserts. In many cases, vouchers and for-profit charters appear like a mirage promising relief and sustenance.

Vouchers and the other billionaire-backed schemes are being done unto poor communities of color. They are not in the community’s best interest and do not build school or community capacity. 

The moral imperative to support deep and lasting change in urban communities, reclaim public schools, and ensure that they serve black, brown and poor children will not be achieved through mayoral control, black-teacher-displacing-Teach for America, or Broad Foundation-prepared superintendents,who use programming to declare public school failure based on test scores, then close schools in poor black neighbors and turn districts over to governors and emergency management teams. Nor can deep and lasting change be driven by deep-pocketed, venture capital-backed philanthropists who think they know what’s best for black, brown and poor children and push their ideas alone (#youknowthenamesnamethem).  

Vouchers and the other billionaire-backed schemes are being done unto poor communities of color. They are not in the community’s best interest and do not build school or community capacity. In fact, these schemes result in at least two negative outcomes: the obliteration of citizens’ democratic right to have input into public schools and the pilfering of taxpayers’ money by individuals and organizations unconnected to the local community and public accountability. Americans in this year’s PDK poll (especially those in Georgia) don’t like this. When asked about local control of schools, nearly 60 percent replied that failing schools should be left to local authorities and not turned over to governors and emergency management teams. Americans don’t like taxpayer money being fiddled with either. In this year’s PDK poll, respondents reported that the biggest problem facing their public schools was lack of funding.

The 2017 PDK poll is hopeful in that it shows that Americans also understand that poverty constricts schoolchildren’s opportunity to learn. Across political party affiliations, race/ethnicity, and income levels, nearly 90 percent (on average) of Americans strongly support wraparound services (such as after-school programs, health care services, and mental health programs) for schoolchildren because these interventions lessen poverty’s blow. This poll finding also confirms that Americans believe the conclusion of 50 years of labor force research: Concerted efforts to provide meaningful employment opportunities to heads of households would prevent hundreds of thousands of families from falling into poverty. Once families experience intractable poverty, their children are dramatically worse off in terms of quality school options and the likelihood of attaining high academic outcomes.

The economic well-being of our nation’s citizens and the vibrancy of our cities and schools must be inspired by American’s collective will to eradicate the isolation and ills of poverty. Market-based schemes designed by profiteers “to disrupt the public education space” are not the answer. They add to the problem.

Children are watching and learning from us – especially the children who are living in school and job deserts. They know what’s going on! And, according to demographers, these black and brown children will soon be the majority of America’s citizens.


Leslie T. Fenwick

Leslie T. Fenwick, PhD, is dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education and a professor of education policy. She has held consecutive appointments as a visiting scholar and visiting fellow at Harvard University. Prior to working in higher education, she was a teacher and administrator in public and private schools. Her opinion pieces have been published by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Education Week, Diverse Issues in Higher Education and the Huffington Post. Additionally, her research has been referenced in the New York Times.


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