Whitesburg KY
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Charter schools in eastern Kentucky?

President–elect Donald Trump has appointed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She grew up in Michigan and still lives there. Her father built a fortune in the auto supply parts business. She is a Michigan philanthropist, political activist, and Republican fund-raiser, who is married to Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune.

DeVos was educated at Holland Christian High School and graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is an educational institution of the Christian Reformed Church. She got into education through her faith by visiting Christian schools and providing scholarships for kids to attend private schools. She soon came to believe that there was no way that private philanthropy was ever going to provide the scholarships to Christian and private schools that so many children needed and could benefit from so she turned to vouchers and charter schools as a solution.

She has never worked in public education or attended a public school but, like many education philanthropists, argues that children’s ZIP codes should not confine them to failing public schools.

For the last 30 years she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and religious schools, has pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence.

During that time she has become a leading advocate for steering public dollars away from traditional public schools to vouchers and charter schools. Therefore, her effort in Michigan to expand educational opportunities has not focused on existing public schools but on models such as voucher and charter schools to compete with public schools for students and money.

In 2015 DeVos, in a speech at the SXSWedu convention in Texas, disclosed the key ideas of her educational philosophy when she said that public schools are a “closed industry, a closed market… a monopoly, a dead end”, that schools “are an industry” and, as an industry, she apparently believes that public schools are not a civic institution but that they should be privatized and run as a business.

Because of these beliefs, her reception as the Secretary of Education appointee has drawn mixed reviews. For example, she is an extreme choice for individuals who believe that vouchers and charter schools undermine the promise of our public education system. On the other hand for those who believe that vouchers and charter schools are the way forward, she represents an extraordinary opportunity to experiment and possibly transform the way we educate our children.

From my perspective, Trump’s choice of DeVos as his Secretary of Education is not surprising. During his campaign, he announced that as President a school voucher program and charter schools would be the centerpiece of his education policy so his pick of someone with Betsy DeVos’s education philosophy was anticipated since she is a known supporter of vouchers, charter schools, and reducing teacher influence.

During the past presidential campaign, Trump called school choice “the civil rights issues of our time.”

DeVos was obviously selected by Trump to carry out his promise to increase the availability of vouchers for families wishing to send their children to private or religious schools, increase the availability of charter schools, and reduce teacher influence in public schools. Her selection, however, has set off alarm bells for public school advocates, and even for fellow reformers who say her approach to vouchers, charter schools, and reduced teacher influence lacks accountability.

On the surface increasing a parent’s educational options for their children may sound like a good idea and perhaps it is — in theory. Unfortunately, most Michigan charter schools supported by DeVos performed below the state average. I suspect this will also be the case nationally since they lack the appropriate accountability and oversight associated with public schools. In addition, DeVos does not support Common Core, the set of standards for what students should know at each grade level.

It should be noted that Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association and other groups but has been incorrectly branded by likeminded conservatives as a federal policy, which, of course, it is not.

Market-based school reforms promoted by De- Vos generally come in two flavors: vouchers and charter schools which differ in both structure and political orientation.

The states that currently don’t allow charter schools include Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Vermont. Notice that all are largely rural and have resisted both the introduction of vouchers and charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are normally run by outside groups not affiliated with the public schools and are often freed from many of the requirements placed on more traditional public schools, such as not having to follow class-size requirements, having a nontraditional school calendar, and the way teachers are employed. In addition, charter schools receive less public funding than public schools which is typically a fixed amount per pupil.

School vouchers, by contrast, allow students to attend any school, public or private, including those run by religious organizations and for-profit companies. They are basically government funded scholarships which allow public school students to attend private schools. The funding for the vouchers is redirected from the state per-pupil public education funding and given directly to schools or families instead of school districts. A school voucher essentially reimburses parents for the amount of money that would have otherwise been used to educate their child in a public school. In most states, however, voucher money flows directly from the government to the private school and the parents never see it. Parents can then use the money to pay some or all of a private school’s tuition (or in some cases, a public school in another district). In this fashion, families can select the public or private schools of their choice and have all or part of the tuition paid by the government.

In Kentucky both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion are now controlled by charter/ voucher-friendly Republicans. In addition, the Kentucky state board of education has approved a set of recommendations for state lawmakers for establishing charter schools in Kentucky. I would expect that in 2017 the Kentucky legislature will pass and the governor will sign a bill, or bills, to establish a pilot charter school/voucher program in the Louisville and Lexington areas. Once that program is established I would also fully expect the legislature and governor, with the support of the Trump and the new Secretary of Education, to attempt to push charter schools and vouchers out to all counties in Kentucky to include the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky.

One interesting aspect of charter schools, however, seems to be that many operate like private schools in that they are picking their students. Even though the idea may be to provide a school choice for families it apparently ends up that instead of families selecting schools, schools are selecting students. That may be one reason why over the last few years charter schools have gotten increasingly better.

DeVos has spent her career promoting a marketbased, privatized vision of public education. When she brings this vision to the national level I suspect she will be initially frustrated, not by Congress, but by the states. I think that states will be hesitant to go along with extensive use of vouchers particularly when that necessitates taking money from public schools.

President-elect Trump has proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program on the campaign trail, and has likened the public school system to a monopoly business that needs to be broken up. But any effort to promote vouchers and charter schools from Washington will run up against the basic structure of American education, which is run by the states.

The United States spends over $600 billion a year on public K-12 schools but less than 9 percent of that money comes from the federal government and that which does come from the government is almost exclusively dedicated to specific populations of children such as those who are disabled or come from low-income communities.

There are simply no existing federal funds that can easily be turned into vouchers large enough to pay for school tuition on the open market. In addition, it will be hard if not impossible for Trump and DeVos to fit $20 billion to a budget passed by a Republican Congress that has already pledged to enact large tax cuts for corporations, expand the military, and eliminate the budget deficit, all at the same time.

Even $20 billion isn’t nearly enough to finance vouchers nationwide, which is why Trump’s proposal assumes that states will kick in another $110 billion which, in my opinion, they will be reluctant to do. States simply do not have that kind of money lying around.

Therefore, the only plausible source of money for vouchers and charter schools is existing public school funding. But even if Ms. DeVos were to find a willing governor and state legislature to support her school initiatives, I suspect it would still not fly because roughly half of all non-federal education funding comes from local property taxes raised by over 13,000 local school districts. They and their elected representatives will have a say and, I suspect, they will strenuously object to taking money from public schools. Certainly I hope that will be the case in eastern Kentucky. Why?

Well, the intersection of geography and politics at the state level is where a voucher plan and charter school initiative meet the road making it difficult if not impossible to enact because school choice associated with vouchers and charter schools are related primarily to population density. That is, children need a convenient transportation system to be able to get to and from school.

In large cities with an extensive public transportation infrastructure, there could be dozens of schools within reasonable travel distance of most families. Whereas, in small cities, towns, or rural area, such as the mountains of eastern Kentucky, there is no public transportation system.

Population density is increasingly one of the dividing lines of the nation’s politics. For example, in the recent presidential election a significant number of Trump’s most ardent supporters lived in sparsely populated rural and mountain areas where school choice is logistically unlikely because of the lack of a public transportation system. Here, I am again thinking about the mountains of eastern Kentucky. At the same time, the people in many of the larger cities, where market voucher reforms may be much easier to implement, voted overwhelmingly against Trump.

I hope the people of eastern Kentucky will not be willing to allow badly needed money to be taken from public schools in order to fund vouchers, charter schools or to fund transportation for those schools. However, because we have a Republican-led legislature and Governor, it is possible that a voucher and charter schools initiative may be forced on the mountain districts in eastern Kentucky.

If that turns out to be the case, and I suspect it will, then we need to make sure that any charter school is authorized by and accountable to the county school board. In addition, the school board should assure the chartered schools are not-for-profit, should be able to close the school if it is academically underperforming, and should choose how the students are selected for the charter school. The charter school should also have a provision that respects teacher collective bargaining agreements and that prevents the charter from expelling students who underperform. Finally, any granted charter should also last no longer than five years before it is up for renewal.

DeVos is expected to encounter some resistance in implementing her voucher and charter school initiatives, however, I do suspect that her appointment will be a boon to two areas: Virtual Schools and Home Schooling. Information technology offers a way around the population density problem because Virtual Schools can be attended from anywhere with an Internet connection. I would, therefore, expect for-profit colleges to make a comeback under the Trump administration which will, in all likelihood, roll back Obama’s efforts to regulate them. But even here I don’t see a lot of success at the K-12 level because most parents will still want their children in a school building during the day, taught by a teacher, and not by a computer.

The number one reason that families favor a particular school is never how the school performs on a state test but rather such intangibles as school safety, teacher quality, principal quality, desire of the child to attend school, etc. When parents are surveyed, the very last point that they raise is how did the school do on a state test. They are most concerned about the intangibles associated with the school.

I expect there to also be a boon to the relatively small, growing population of families that home school their children. But that is a small group that has not gained a large foothold in education due to the child socialization issue. That is, children being home schooled simply do not acquire the social skills available to those attending a public school.

Nevertheless, I still have an open mind about the politics of education and have taken a wait-and-see attitude to the appointment of DeVos as Secretary of Education hoping she will also be open minded to reform and not a committed education ideologue. I sincerely hope she understands that any education reform is not a formula that leads to education success for that ultimately depends upon a balance between autonomy, accountability, and family involvement in the school.

Susan Dynarski, Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at the University of Michigan, said something to the effect that “too little autonomy stifles innovation while too little accountability results in bad schools.” I think that is about right. Unfortunately, DeVos seems drawn to a version of school reform that is troubled by the lack of accountability. Well, I will continue to keep an open mind but always remembering that no matter how good an idea may seem in theory, it needs to help children in practice.

Unfortunately, for the last several years the federal and state governments have been gradually defunding public schools to where they now struggle to purchase the required books and the other resources necessary for a good student education, nor can we pay our teachers the salary they deserve. This is especially true in eastern Kentucky.

Our elected state officials will only add insult to injury by siphoning funds from public school to fund vouchers or charter school particularly in eastern Kentucky. Our legislature and governor do not seem to understand that opening a charter school is like opening a business but where the cost and risk are underwritten not by the individual but by the Kentucky taxpayer.

In the final analysis, our public schools, and not vouchers and charter schools, will determine not only the quality of our children’s education but also the future of eastern Kentucky.

Our public schools are not a “dead end” as DeVos seems to believe but the way forward for the people of eastern Kentucky. In addition, I have the highest confidence that our public school teachers do provide a good education for our students.

In my opinion, voucher programs and charter schools are neither required nor necessary in eastern Kentucky.

J.T. Oney of Mayking is an Adjunct Professor at the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

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