Desks in a classroom.
Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock

Ignoring the evidence, Trump pushes school voucher scheme

— Updated
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ran into a little trouble yesterday, inadvertently celebrating an era of racially segregated higher education, all in the hopes of advancing her goal of "school choice" -- a Republican euphemism to describe a system of school vouchers.

In light of the controversy, I thought Donald Trump might want to steer clear of the issue in his address to Congress last night, but the president plowed forward anyway. From the transcript:

"I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.

"Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather. As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit, and a scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year, she will get her master's degree in social work. We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha."

While I'm delighted things have gone well for Denisha Merriweather, the fact remains that one person does not a successful policy make.

Campaigns to privatize America's system of public education remain controversial for all sorts of reasons -- not the least of which is the idea of asking taxpayers to finance religious instruction -- but what Trump chooses to ignore is the fact that "school choice" doesn't work.

Indeed, the New York Times reported just last week that there have been voucher experiments in many areas throughout the United States, and these tests have routinely failed to deliver.

[E]ven as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling – the worst in the history of the field, researchers say. […]

When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” – not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

The result is a striking contrast: the evidence points in one direction, Trump points in another. Policymakers would be wise to prioritize the former over the latter.