Poised to upend the status quo, our next education secretary is likely Betsy DeVos. She’s pumped millions of her own fortune to support voucher programs, funding private tuition with taxpayer dollars. Charmed by charter schools, DeVos is eager to fork it over when prep schools come knocking, but she slams the door when the outstretched hand belongs to a public school.
As someone grateful for my free K-12 education, this woman scares me most among all of Trump’s nominees. I’m a proud graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, a highly-ranked but overcrowded public high school in suburban New Jersey. Many of my classmates were Asian immigrants like myself.
Prestigious private schools, including The Lawrenceville School, Princeton Day School and Peddie, were a 15-minute drive from our home. But like many immigrants, my parents couldn’t afford the six-figure price tag to send two kids there every year. Nor could they navigate the competitive admissions process with their broken English and full-time jobs.
If my family had been offered a voucher under DeVos’ grand scheme, we likely would have taken it. My classes would have been smaller. I would have gotten more one-on-one attention from my teachers. The counselor might not have asked me to outline my own college recommendation. There would have been soap in the bathroom dispensers. Maybe even full-size lockers.
But I might not have learned to focus in crowded classrooms, unafraid to shout a wrong answer with confidence. I wouldn’t have signed a petition to fix public health guidelines, after learning the defrosted pizza on my Styrofoam tray counted as a vegetable serving (because under a thick layer of cheese lay two tablespoons of tomato sauce). I wouldn’t have been able to walk myself home from school on days both my parents worked.
I remember my local school district struggled to maintain its diverse reputation. As Asian students became the overwhelming majority, a dozen or so of my classmates transferred to prep school. All but one were white.
DeVos’ policies to cut education funding would only expedite this wealthy, white flight from public schools, not just in my town but in districts across the country. The result: a segregated education system that voucher programs aren’t likely to fix.
In San Francisco, whites make up 29 percent of the school-age population but just 12 percent of students in the city’s public schools. In the South, a 2016 report by the Southern Education Foundation found that private schools are re-segregating classrooms into rich and white or poor and black. Furthermore, it reported that vouchers have done little to diversify them.
Voucher programs can also hinder student progress. Recent studies on the programs in Louisiana and Indiana found that reading and math scores declined after voucher recipients transferred to private schools. Yet, there was an unexplained advantage among these private school transfers. When it came to a college degree, they were more likely to attend and finish a four-year school compared to their public school peers.
Even here at Middlebury, a college with need-blind admissions and a generous financial aid budget, prep school diplomas are the norm, rather than the exception, like it is in the rest of this country. The College’s website estimates 48 percent of students graduated from private school.
Though the split is near fifty-fifty, it’s nowhere close to the national statistic. The National Center for Education Studies reported just 10 percent of school-age children went to private school in 2014. That means Middlebury recruited nearly half its incoming class from a one-tenth sliver of all American students. Furthermore, the median family income among students is $244,000 and nearly a quarter belong to the wealthiest one percent of all American households, the New York Times reported.
Playing the numbers game, I’m lucky to be here. But what will be the odds of my peers – the three million other 18-year-olds who graduate each year without the privilege of private schooling – to attend an elite college like ours after DeVos cuts funding for public schools? After she implements voucher programs in their place?
The rise of populism in this year’s election revealed discontent among hopeful college graduates and hardened blue-collar workers alike. Yet, a quality and free education gives every American a shot at the “American Dream,” no matter their party, race, income or immigrant status. In conservative speak, education spending is the rising tide that lifts all boats. If Trump’s administration champions merit, hard work and grit among our country’s founding values, our education secretary must invest in public schools, not defund them.