Trump's Choice Is Not Our Choice

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both support school choice, a key aspect of Speak UP’s platform, prompting some Speak UP members to ask, could this possibly be a good thing?

The answer is, decidedly and emphatically -- no. And the reason lies in Speak UP’s other core values of accountability and equity for all kids.

There is a huge chasm between the kind of quality school choice that we have here in California and the type of unregulated and unaccountable choice promulgated by Trump and DeVos, the main architect behind the abysmal failure of a school system in Detroit.

Trump and DeVos both support school vouchers, which would provide families with money, most likely a few thousand dollars, to attend private schools. California voters have rejected vouchers at the ballot box twice, and for good reasons. There is simply no way to hold private schools accountable for how they spend public money and for their student outcomes. 

Equity is also an issue. Public schools, both district and charter, with a few exceptions such as gifted magnets and some performing art schools, must accept all comers, at least within the confines of space and certain geographic boundaries. Private schools, on the other hand, can pick and choose which students they want to admit and reject.

So while wealthy families may be able to offset a small portion of their private school tuition bills with vouchers, the most vulnerable kids, such as English language learners and those with special needs, will not be admitted to the elite, high-performing schools, and there’s nothing the public can do about it. Vouchers used at religious schools also raise First Amendment concerns.

But most importantly, the research on student performance with vouchers is discouraging. The Brookings Institution released a paper in May highlighting research in Indiana and Louisiana that found that “public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large.”

The Louisiana research is striking because most of the students in New Orleans attend charter schools that have strong oversight, providing an interesting point of comparison. Students in New Orleans charters have increased standardized test scores by eight to 15 percentage points. However, those who have received vouchers for private schools saw tests score decline eight to 16 percentage points.

Speak UP supports quality choices that work for kids. But not all charter school systems work as well as those in New Orleans or, for that matter, in Los Angeles, where charters were actually created to head off the threat of a voucher ballot initiative. Detroit, where DeVos was behind a failed school choice experiment, is the most egregious example of how a lack of accountability and proper oversight can harm students.

Let’s consider some of the differences between the choice systems in Detroit and Los Angeles:

* About 80 percent of the charter schools in Detroit are for-profit schools, compared to 3 percent here in California, none of which are authorized by LAUSD. Even the California Charter Schools Association opposes for-profit charters.

* Half of the charters in Detroit perform only as well or worse than the traditional public schools. However, independent charters within LAUSD boundaries have outperformed traditional district schools two years in a row in both math and English while serving kids with similar demographics. A Stanford study in 2014 found that L.A. charter students gain the equivalent of 50 more days of learning in reading and 79 more days of learning in math compared with peers in traditional district schools.

* Underperforming charters in Detroit have little accountability and rarely face closure because a dozen different agencies sponsor schools without coordination. Charters schools in California are more accountable. They come up for renewal every five years, and those that do not improve upon the district's academic performance or have financial or operational problems can be denied. Even the association representing charter schools puts together an annual and public call for non-renewal of charters every year and this month recommended that six charters be denied renewal.

Speak UP fully supports non-profit charters as public school options, but we believe that choice must come with accountability and that schools that are not serving kids well should not remain open.

As columnist David Leonhardt at The New York Times pointed out, for schools to succeed, there needs to be a delicate balance between autonomy and accountability – two core values of Speak UP. We need accountability and oversight and a fair and objective way to evaluate school performance, while not stifling innovation with too many time-consuming regulations and unnecessary investigations.

We don’t always get that balance right here in California. We endorse accountability measures based on objective and transparent data centered on student outcomes. However, LAUSD sometimes fails to close underperforming schools that should not remain open, while at other times recommends denial of schools that are serving kids well, for seemingly arbitrary and political reasons. The vague language in the California charter school law opens the door to this abuse and could use improvement.

Right now, the power to close a charter is placed primarily in the hands of the school board, which sometimes acts in inscrutable and politically motivated ways outside the scope of the law. In 2014, the LAUSD board clearly did that when it voted to deny renewal to two Aspire charters because of their entirely legal choice of a special education provider.

The Los Angeles County Board overruled that decision, but it would be useful to have an independent and less politically motivated entity than LAUSD -- one that doesn’t view charters as competition for enrollment -- to authorize and oversee charters with more fairness and transparency.

While LAUSD sometimes goes overboard in nitpicking what charters can and cannot do, the Trump/DeVos philosophy goes too far in the other direction. What we need is balance, not the extremes in either direction. 

--Jenny Hontz is a founding member of Speak UP and serves as chair of the issues and endorsements committee