President Donald Trump's new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is known for her strong support of school vouchers for students. What are school vouchers and are they good for public education? Maria Ferguson, from the George Washington University Center on Education Policy, discusses these questions and more surrounding public education policy.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the difference between public, charter, and private schools?
Charter schools are actually public schools. Every state has different laws regarding charters. There is no national law that dictates charters within the United States. Each state is a little different in how they do it. How the charters get authorized, what accountability requirements they have, etc. What distinguishes charters from traditional public schools is that they have more flexibility as it pertains to district policies. That can mean they don't have to follow the same rules re: the hiring of teachers or how the school day is structured or how students earn their credit hours. The specifics depend on the individual state's laws for charter schools, although some states have no charter laws on the books.
Private schools are simply that. They are private. They are not run within the public system. They are a completely different animal. Sometimes people refer to parochial schools as private schools. I normally distinguish between private and parochial schools. Parochial schools are unique in that they have a religious doctrine associated with them and there are many private schools that don’t have that at all.
What exactly is a school voucher?
The quick answer is that school vouchers represent the money that is associated with the child in local funding streams. If you give a family a voucher for their child's education, you are essentially giving them the money that is allotted to cover their child's cost of attending public school. That money comes from the state and local tax base. The family can go then and " buy " education services from another school, even a private or parochial school. In essence, public funds are used to pay for private education.
What is the current state of public schools? A lot of the rhetoric in politics paints public schools as terrible and failing. Is that true?
I would say that is a popular misconception. It’s really easy for public officials and the media to talk about the failing U.S. schools, but the reality is, by most metrics, American schools have gotten better and better. Outcomes have increased. As a nation, we have made gains over the past 40 years, especially as it pertains to black and latino students.
...the reality is, by most metrics, American schools have gotten better and better.
You hear a lot about these international comparisons that the U.S. finishes really far behind Taiwan and Korea, but it’s really an apples and oranges comparison. The education system in Taiwan and Korea is very different than the U.S. system. It’s a nationalized system. It’s not a locally federalized system. And they really do emphasize a very different set of skills than what goes into the American education system. By and large, we’re graduating kids at higher numbers. More Americans than ever are heading off to college.
The rhetoric surrounding education is really a little bit of a doom and gloom picture that doesn’t really capture the reality of the situation on the ground. Disparities exist, but they exist — at least in my view — because we are a tax-based system and the tax code is uneven. So, there are always going to be schools that have less funding than other communities. If you live in a wealthy community where the houses cost a lot and everyone is employed, there’s a lot of money for public schools. If you live in a not-so-great community and the housing market is not strong and there are a lot of unemployed people, then you can figure out what impact that is going to have on the tax base. There’s not going to be as robust of a budget for schools there. To me, that is a fundamental aspect of inequity. Expecting parity when you have inequity doesn’t make a lot of sense. But, despite that, we have still steadily improved over the last 40 years.
Is that inequality what vouchers are intended to offset?
To a certain extent, but vouchers are a bit of a false promise. It's not hard to understand why it would sound attractive, but the reality is: there are very few places that have enough schools to offer that kind of choice.
School vouchers may be an idea that down the road can be improved upon and made better and made stronger and made more equitable.
There are many communities, rural communities being the perfect example, where there’s nowhere for students to go. It’s not like there are a lot of options. There is usually just one public school. School vouchers may be an idea that down the road can be improved upon and made better and made stronger and made more equitable. But right now, there is no evidence showing that vouchers are a viable strategy for public education.
And you have to think about what you’re doing to the schools that are being left behind. A colleague of mine put it really nicely, “Vouchers may give the opportunity for 50 students to get a better education, but you’re doing that on the backs of 5,000 students.” It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Are private schools actually better than public schools?
Again, that is making an apple and orange comparison. It’s really hard to compare public schools and private schools. Private schools can select their students. They can say, “No. We don’t want you.” Public schools can’t do that. Public schools have to take all students no matter whether they have learning disabilities, whether they’re struggling. It doesn’t matter. Public schools take everybody and private schools have the luxury of taking the cream off the top. They can take exactly who they want. So you really can't compare them to public schools.
In those areas where public schools have less funding, would more money help?
Well, it depends. Money alone is not the answer. It’s how you use it. Having an even funding base would certainly set a baseline of equality, but it’s what you do with it. You have to have good leadership. You have to have good teachers. You have to have families that are committed. We know what structurally makes for good schools. If all those things aren’t in place, you could throw money at it until the end of time and it’s not going to improve anything.
Is it better to focus more on reforming public schools or creating school voucher programs?
That’s a zero sum game. I like to think there’s middle ground between the two and most things in education are like that. We really like in education to set things up as a zero sum game between one way or the other. And, at least in my experience, that has never been the reality of public schooling. It is a deeply nuanced endeavor. So I don’t think there’s any evidence right now for us to believe that vouchers are a good strategy writ large.
There’s no one answer in education. I think we have to keep plugging away and think about what we know works and accept the fact that we live in a country that has a locally controlled education system. Things are going to look different in different places. Unlike most industrialized nations, we do not have a set of national standards for education that every school in the country follows and goes along with. Every state is unique. That’s the system by design and that’s the system we have.
In your ideal world, what would the middle ground between public school reform and school vouchers look like?
I don’t think that the ideal world scenario helps very much in education. It’s far more complicated than that and since every state is different, you couldn’t have one plan that works in every place. The ideal scenario is that the public is deeply involved and committed to public education. That, to me, is the best thing that can happen to our system. It is a public education system. It is a system that requires the involvement of players at all ends of the spectrum. Business, policy makers, families, community leaders. Everyone has a stake in education. Making sure that people are involved and care about their own schools and the kids in those schools is the single best thing you can do for education.