The big irony is that the voucher school reform idea preferred by Trump-DeVos is as thoroughly debunked as the ideas about School Improvement Grants that she is attacking now. One bad idea following another—is anyone learning?
There is plenty to unpack in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but one thing in particular is really bad news. Here’s what she said:
The previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on “School Improvement Grants,” thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance. They tested their model, and it failed … miserably.
DeVos’s statement signals the jujitsu move that is about to be used against public education. School Improvement Grants were, indeed, a failure. And the Obama administration did admit it in a report that was around 400 pages long, but really boiled down to just one sentence:
“Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any [School Improvement Grant]-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”
The report was honest enough to offer a plausible explanation for that failure—the grants not only delivered money, but delivered specific instructions for how the money would be spent, instructions dictated by the folks in D.C.
School improvement grants were like food stamps that could only be spent on baby formula, ostrich eggs, and venison—and it didn't matter if the families receiving the stamps lived on a farm with fresh milk and chicken eggs, or if they were vegetarians, or if they lived where no store sells ostrich eggs, or if there were no babies in the family. The Department of Education used the grants to dictate strategy and buy compliance with their micro-managing notions about how schools had to be fixed.
As with many classic reform moves, plenty of folks on the ground level could have told the reformers what was wrong with their plan. But as DeVos’s comments show, the damage of School Improvement Grants is not only in wasted money, it’s also in convicting the wrong suspect and discrediting a whole reform approach.
DeVos and other conservative reformers are taking the real lesson of the grant program’s failure: “spending money on the wrong thing for schools doesn’t help,” and shortening it to a far more damaging assessment: “spending money on schools doesn’t help.”
The Obama-Duncan-King program didn’t just fail, they say, but it also helped discredit the whole idea of funding schools at all. Thanks Obama.
The irony here is not that one group of reformers attacked another group of reformers, or that the policies that were supposed to save schools will now be used to help dismantle them.
No, the big irony is that the reform idea preferred by Trump-DeVos is as thoroughly debunked as school improvement grants. On the same day DeVos was pitching vouchers to the enthusiastic CPAC crowd, Kevin Carey was turning up not one, but three solid studies showing that vouchers actually hurt students who use them. Studies in three states found voucher-using students had similar reading scores and worse math scores as non-voucher students.
That includes a study involving Mike Pence’s Indiana voucher program, and a Louisiana program that involved lotteries to make school populations randomized and comparable. The third study was run by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and funded by the Waltons—all huge voucher fans. And in Ohio they found the same results—voucher students did worse than their comparable public school peers. Carey quoted one Louisiana researcher who called the negative effects the worst he’d ever seen in any education research results—ever.
Vouchers failed miserably.
At this point in the modern ed reform era, we have had ample opportunity to test and study many education reform ideas. If there had been any major successes, we could try to learn from them. But at this point mostly what we have are miserable failures. We can only hope that Betsy DeVos and the folks at the Department of Education make an honest effort to learn something from those.
And if they don’t? Well, thanks again Obama.