January 28, 2017 9:25 pm

Glenda Ritz on Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos and Indiana’s School Choice Program

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by Glenda Ritz, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction

We did not hear much about education during the presidential campaign. But one thing that Donald Trump made clear in the months leading up to his election was that he would spend billions of dollars on vouchers for private schools rather than investing in public education.

On Jan. 17, Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a longtime champion of “school choice” policies and voucher programs, faces the Senate during her confirmation hearing. She will be one step closer to making Trump’s school choice agenda a reality.

While “school choice” might make for a good sound bite, the details of school choice and voucher programs are far less appealing. Trump’s plan will gut our public education system in an attempt to privatize and deregulate the education of millions of American children. I’ve already witnessed it in Indiana.

Over the last four years, I have seen firsthand how the school choice ideology hurts our public schools and our students. As Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction during Mike Pence’s tenure as governor, I spent my term fighting for public education. While my goal was to build a high-quality, equitable public education system, Pence sought to privatize education whenever and wherever possible under the auspices of “school choice.”

Indiana’s school choice program started under a prior governor as a small pilot, tailored to poor families that did not believe public schools were providing their children with an adequate education. Gov. Pence, however, escalated this program into a de facto entitlement for middle-upper-class families, pulling millions of dollars from our poorest schools so that these more affluent families could subsidize a private school education for their kids. Betsy DeVos wants to expand these voucher programs to as many states as possible.

Pence likes to claim that Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. What he does not like to admit is that in five years of this program, Indiana’s taxpayers have sent more than $345 million to religious schools with little to no state oversight or regulation. These taxpayer dollars would have otherwise funded public education in our state.

Even worse, these private schools are now admitting that most of their voucher students would have gone to private schools anyway. After all, it is the private schools that are doing the real choosing, picking their favorite students while leaving out others. More than half of Indiana’s voucher recipients — from the inception of the program through 2016 — have never been enrolled in the state’s public school system. In Wisconsin, a state with a voucher program similar to Indiana’s, the numbers are similar: 75 percent of students participating in Wisconsin’s voucher program in its first year were already attending private school. These vouchers continue to siphon vital funding from rural and urban public schools that desperately need it.

Finally, according to a recent, first-of-its-kind study of Indianapolis choice schools by the University of Notre Dame, there are no measurable academic benefits for students using vouchers. At some schools, the study showed student academic losses in math. Meanwhile, Indiana has yet to evaluate its school choice program to determine potential impacts on public schools regarding funding, student diversity and student achievement.

Betsy DeVos has a long history of lobbying for vouchers. As the head of the organization All Children Matter, she used her money and influence to help defeat 17 incumbents who opposed school vouchers and secure the successful election of four pro-voucher governors. DeVos also chaired the American Federation for Children, which has lobbied Congress and presidential candidates to allow Title I money to flow to private schools through vouchers. If confirmed to lead the Department of Education, she will take her support of private-school vouchers to the national level in an unprecedented way.

Instead of supporting the neediest students, voucher programs often provide tuition assistance to families who can already afford to send their children to private schools. DeVos, Trump and Pence plan to implement policies that I believe will, plain and simple, hurt public education and our nation’s students.