Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2016.
These are heady times for free-market education reformers. Republicans control Congress, GOP governors will lead 33 states, the vice-president elect is a champion of private school vouchers, and a conservative Supreme Court might soon have the power to thwart teacher union power irreparably. Best of all for the school choice crowd, billionaire GOP donor Betsy DeVos, a leading advocate of education reform, has been nominated to head up the Education Department.
The excitement of education advocates with conservative policy priorities was palpable last week at the annual reform conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a group founded by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential contender. More than 1,000 people from across the U.S. gathered at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Washington D.C. for two days of panels, plenary sessions, and networking.
“Be big, be bold, or go home,” urged Bush in a welcome speech that exuded the confidence and eagerness of his audience. A recurring conference theme and mantra was “choice.” But choice for these reformers revealed itself to be an ever-moving target. Some speakers said things like: “We’re not about school choice, we’re about education choice.” Others insisted that “instructional choice is the new school choice.”
This was all connected to another conference theme, the notion of schooling in a “post-facility” world. Indeed a major goal for conservative education reformers is to push so-called education savings accounts (ESAs), voucher-like subsidies that can fund not just private school tuition, but also things like tutoring and home schooling.
In theory, additional money to pay for educational expenses sounds like a great way to level the playing field between well-off and low-income students. Children from wealthy families take advantage of all sorts of costly educational opportunities outside of school, such as summer enrichment programs, sports teams, and private tutoring. But at least as they’re currently conceived, education savings accounts are more about redirecting existing per-pupil funds away from public schools, not so much about supplementing public school students with additional money. In that sense, ESAs differ from cash supplements like child allowances, which are social security payments distributed to parents to help shoulder the cost of child-rearing.
Doug Tuthill, who leads an organization that helps administer education savings accounts in Florida, has touted such policies as a means to “customize” an education that parents deem most appropriate. In a 2014 article dubbed “The End of ‘School Choice,'” Tuthill wrote: “This shift from state control of education funds to parental control, combined with the movement toward customized teaching and learning, is going to revolutionize public education.”
This “customization” concept was spotlighted on an FEE conference panel. Participants were asked to imagine a buffet of educational options, where parents are “empowered” to design their child’s experience. For example, a parent may opt to use public dollars to homeschool their child for half the day, then send their kid to a traditional public school for two classes, and then maybe use the rest of the money for virtual tutoring.
For conservatives at the conference, this notion that parents can go outside the traditional public school system to tap a range of other options, whether in the form of charter schools, private schools, home schooling or virtual classrooms, is the holy grail of education reform. It’s also what makes teachers’ unions and progressive public school advocates worried about DeVos and Donald Trump. One brake on private-school vouchers, for example, has been the paucity of school options in rural communities. But broadly-expanded education savings accounts could help make such vouchers more feasible on a grand scale.
ESAs could also facilitate growth in home schooling, which according to the Education Department was limited to approximately 1,770,000 U.S. students, or about 3 percent of the school-age population, in 2013. The same goes for virtual education, a major priority for DeVos, who has founded and funded groups that promote its growth. This, too, alarms public school advocates, who point to multiple research studies that conclude virtual charter schools produce far worse academic outcomes for kids than traditional public schools. Unfortunately, some of FEE’s speakers downplayed those studies or called their findings into question.
Despite the conference’s upbeat tone, one session was markedly less optimistic. At a panel titled “The Politics of Education Reform,” an assemblage of free-market reform advocates discussed the implications of Trump’s victory, and the messaging challenges ahead. Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm, moderated the event.
Front and center was whether Donald Trump and his far-right nominee for education secretary will drive away Democratic support for a bipartisan education overhaul. Rotherham asked it plainly: “How should the education reform community position itself and does [Trump’s victory] threaten to split and shatter existing coalitions?”
Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who tracks the politics of K-12 policies, noted that previous bipartisan education coalitions have floundered over the last decade amid growing political polarization. “There’s an unfortunate dynamic where we often decide whether we’re for or against something, based on whether someone else is for or against it,” he said.
West recalled how towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats turned against the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act as it became more strongly associated with the Bush administration. The same thing happened, West said, with the Common Core standards—which once enjoyed bipartisan support, but which conservatives rejected when they became to be too closely associated with President Obama. If charters and choice become similarly associated with Trump, already skeptical Democrats could dig in their heels.
Nevertheless, one Democrat on the panel affirmed there’s room for both sides to work together. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, acknowledged his group’s stance that no Democrat should serve as secretary of education in Trump’s administration, but said that this doesn’t mean his organization won’t work with Trump’s administration on areas on which they can agree.
“We didn’t want one of ours working for him, but working for is very different than working with,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t work together and collaborate on good policies, and we intend to do that.”
When Jeffries was asked what Democrats for Education Reform thinks of DeVos he said his group is “still trying to learn more about her, to be honest.” He later clarified that “the jury is out for us but we look forward to supporting her in anything that’s positive for kids.”
To be sure, Jeffries has something of a DeVos connection. His group has an affiliation with, and he is president of, a nonprofit known as Education Reform Now that has received funding from the American Federation of Children. The latter is a conservative school choice advocacy group that DeVos chaired until recently.
Moreover, some FEE conferees voiced confidence that they can broaden the school choice political coalition by appealing to suburban parents. Some conservatives have argued that it’s time to bring middle-class families on board a movement that until now has touted charters and vouchers as alternatives for disadvantaged students stuck in “failing” public schools.
In his opening remarks, Jeb Bush urged the audience to “focus on the moral case” for school reform, and to “avoid the economic details” or making “the technical case.”
Such moral appeals will almost certainly bring some families into the education reform camp. Conservatives have scored plenty of political points with their rhetoric about fighting for kids, empowering parents, strengthening schools, and broadening access to high-quality education.
But the bottom line as DeVos takes the helm of federal education in the Trump era will be dollars—how they get spent, and whether charters, private schools, home schooling, and virtual education come at the expense of families in traditional public schools. DeVos has yet to be confirmed, of course. But the newly emboldened conservative education movement has signaled that, for better or worse, big changes are ahead for public schools.