DeVos voucher plan would exacerbate educational inequality
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Students in schools with concentrated poverty know that their schools have less than schools situated in wealthier communities, but when they come face to face with exactly how much less, the experience can be painful.

A forthcoming book by Cynthia Taines, as well as a recent initiative between students in Philadelphia and Methacton, Pennsylvania, shows what happens when students from under-resourced schools visit well-resourced schools just a few miles away.

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Touring the wealthier suburban school, the students from the under-resourced urban schools experienced feelings of betrayal as they realized just how unfairly they've been treated by our nation’s education system.

  

“I feel trashy,” one Philadelphia student said.

“I feel deprived,” said another.   

Although she imagines she might reverse these feelings of deprivation by pushing a school choice agenda, Betsy DeVos will, in fact, underscore the message the low-income students take away from these projects — the system is rigged against them.

Due to what she represents and what she promises, DeVos’s confirmation as secretary of education will further reinforce the inequities endemic to our nation’s schools.

By confirming DeVos, the Republicans in the Senate affirm that the wealthy in this country get to play by a different set of rules. DeVos came to her hearing woefully underprepared.

She demonstrated a profound lack of knowledge of the laws that govern public education, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and little understanding of the different ways in which student achievement can be measured.

In a pointed exchange with Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineSinclair deal puts heat on FCC Senate Dem: Comey firing an 'attempt to obstruct' Russia investigation Trump bombshell: FBI’s Comey fired MORE (D-Va.) in which he asked if she supported “equal accountability for all schools that received federal funding, yes or no?” she could only repeat, “I support accountability.” 

Were this exchange a multiple choice question on one of the standardized tests typically used for accountability purposes, she would have failed. Were she in a school where her classmates answered as she did, her school would be labeled a failing school and threatened with closure or takeover.

As it is, if she is confirmed, she will be rewarded for her glaring ineptitude and cavalier approach toward preparation. Unlike the students in the struggling schools she promises to hold accountable, she was apparently neither subject to incessant test prep sessions nor made to feel that much was at stake during her performance.

The stark difference between her low-stakes confirmation process, where she was shielded and showered with praise by the Republicans whose coffers she has filled, and the high-stakes testing experiences of neglected students whose schools have been starved of resources is not just ironic; it is unjust.

The takeaway is clear — money matters. You have it and you can get away with shoddy work, no matter the costs to others. If you don’t have it you will be blamed for your individual failings, held accountable.

It is this same type of blaming and shaming logic that underpins DeVos’s policy priorities as well — the use of school vouchers and the expansion of unregulated charter schools.

DeVos, like the man who chose her for the position of secretary of education, believes students should not be “trapped in failing schools.”  She promises to spring the trap by giving them tuition vouchers to attend a school of their choosing.

If they fail to choose well, the onus is on them. Nevermind that the vouchers will never be enough to cover the tuition costs of elite private schools, or that schools of the sort her children attended may not want low-income students with vouchers.

Never mind the time, social costs, or the mental toll of having to travel far from one’s home to attend “a better” school. Never mind that some children may actually want to stay in their own neighborhoods to attend school, if only their schools had the same level of resources the schools across town had.

Certainly never mind the research, which shows voucher programs do not work to improve student achievement. 

Voucher programs and charter school expansion drain both money and social capital from the traditional public schools, creating even more of an imbalanced, two-tiered system.

More insidiously, these policies let politicians and taxpayers, who do not want their tax dollars redirected to the “inner city", off the hook from having to invest money in upgrading neighborhood schools in low-income communities.

These schools can continue to crumble, to poison teachers and students, to find themselves unable to afford the textbooks that are aligned to the state tests, because if the kids remain in these schools, under a voucher system, it’s their own damned fault.

To counter the damage DeVos could do to our education system, we must refuse to accept the illusion of school choice and to allow the dismantling of public education in this country.

We need to rise up and demand from our politicians an educational system built on a foundation of sufficient, well-resourced, sustainable neighborhood public schools for all children.

In particular,  we must support those who have been left behind by the school of choice movement, those who have been pushed out of charter schools, and those who reject the notion that any system that sets up a marketplace of school winners and school losers is in the best interest of our democracy. 

DeVos may be confirmed soon, but she should not be given carte blanche. If she is confirmed, it will be time to hold her and those who voted to confirm her accountable.

 

Jerusha Conner is a professor at Villanova University who specializes in K-12 public high schools and the pressures on students to perform academically.


 

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