In her first extended discussion of policy since becoming education secretary, Betsy DeVos cited declining test scores, asking, “At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution?” It’s a reaction that betrays the extent to which the billionaire is insulated from or ambivalent to the realities facing educators: funding is down nationwide, teachers unions are in decline, and teacher pay has decreased since the 1990s.
This outrage will vent the left-wing angst at DeVos’s agenda, but the reality remains that vouchers have taken hold in the majority of states, and Republicans now dominate state-level politics. The message on the left is a reactionary one; “support our public schools” is as predictable as it is reliable. But in the “War on Education”, it is now clear that this approach isn’t enough.
Devos and Trump? They’re winning.
The left’s message isn’t sticking, and Democrats are desperate for a win at the state level. Now what?
With this question in mind, I spoke with two experts: Julie Underwood, a former general counsel for the National School Board Association, and John Witte, a political scientist and occasional school-choice advocate. Both see a way to turn things around for the left.
To Underwood, winning in court relies on separating the funding discussion from Blaine amendments, which draw the line between church and state for education funding. Though the Blaine amendments may seem straightforward, religious organizations have been happy to paint them as government attacks on Christian or Catholic institutions – a characterization that Underwood is keen to dismiss.
“It’s not just that I want more money and I hate Saint James,” Underwood said, “it’s that I want [public education], which is there to support a democratic society.”
She argues that defending public education on grounds of “uniformity” would find broader appeal as an affirmation of fairness and equality in education.
There’s precedent for this strategy, too. Florida’s Supreme Court called upon a uniformity clause, requiring the state to provide “efficient, safe, secure and high quality” public schools,” to strike down a voucher program that both threatened to drain funds from the public system while failing to meet the same academic standards.
For Underwood, rulings like this put equality and accessibility front and center, rather than religion.
“For that public money – public education money – to go to privately controlled, unregulated schools that can discriminate, violate individual constitutional rights, reject children with disabilities… We want our public schools to be equalizing, to bring people as part of the public, not to create separate publics,” she said.
In contrast to Underwood’s appeal to the heart, John Witte offers an approach that aims straight for the wallet. He argues that voucher programs, and in particular universal voucher programs – which don’t prioritize students in failing or impoverished districts – spend money needlessly on students already enrolled in good private or public schools.
“If you think about the rank-and-file Republican assembly person or senator, they’re not as sold [on vouchers],” Witte said. “Their constituents are in the suburbs mostly, and a few of them are in really rural areas where vouchers don’t matter.”
Voucher programs fall into the larger culture war along city and suburban lines, where conservative suburbs try to control and dictate what they see as bureaucratic labyrinths of wasteful government expenditure. However, these suburban Republicans – typically fiscal conservatives – don’t have to be enemies in the fight for public education.
According to Witte, it takes just one assembly person to say, “Do we really want to pay all these people who are admittedly our friends to take their kids to private schools, when they’re paying for them already? Do we really want to spend that money and put that stress on the tax system?”
Constituents in the suburbs have, in many cases, good public schools. To pay taxes and drain public schools of resources for the benefit of neighbors who already enroll their kids in private schools, Witte says, lays bare the cognitive dissonance behind universal voucher programs. For rural constituents, public education funding is even more important since the public schools that serve those students rarely have private equivalents. Eroding the already limited pool of resources would simply give students and teachers less ground to stand on.
Witte isn’t against voucher programs that provide reasonable oversight and targeted appropriations. He is, in many ways, the kind of non-ideologically bound moderate that the left could stand to reason with.
But recent voucher expansions have not taken this form. Universal programs are on the rise: Nevada attempted to pass a law qualifying 100 percent of its students for vouchers, regardless of income, school district, or any qualifying stipulation whatsoever. At the same time, Utah, Arizona and Indiana continue to aggressively expand their systems.
In the face of this growth, the left must consider how, in what ways, and to what degree it wants to fight back. Direct action, protests and declarations of support shouldn’t become irrelevant. But after years of retreat, it’s time for a different tactic in the war on education.