New education secretary Betsy DeVos champions vouchers and charter schools — here’s what that means

caption
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC.
source
Getty / Chip Somodevilla

During a January 18 Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, took a battery of questions related to her views on gun control, disability laws, and performance standards.

But perhaps no two topics have surrounded the newly-confirmed education secretary more this past election season than vouchers and charter schools. DeVos has expressed support for both as alternatives to traditional public school.

Now that DeVos is confirmed, the concepts will likely stick around for much of the new president’s term(s). To help demystify them, here’s what vouchers and charter schools actually do – and why some people may oppose or support them.

Vouchers

The cost to teach a public school student for one year, according to 2012 data, is approximately $10,615. An education voucher lets parents apply that money to a private or religious school, perhaps if they live in an area with bad public schools or want to give their child a specific kind of education.

Today, roughly 400,000 kids in 29 states attend schools with help from a voucher, according to the advocacy group EdChoice.

Proponents like DeVos say the system gives at-risk kids a better shot at getting a quality education: With a voucher, they can attend a school to which their family otherwise has no access. Critics believe the vouchers siphon precious dollars away from public schools, since taxpayer dollars are getting diverted to fund private education.

As secretary of education, DeVos has promised to expand existing voucher programs in line with President-elect Trump’s goal to provide more school choice. In the past he has called public schools “a government-run monopoly.”

caption
KIPP Ways Academy charter student Jorian Jordan, 13, center, looks on during a rally on the Capitol.
source
AP

Charter schools

At their most basic level, charter schools are schools that are privately run but publicly funded. They are free to deviate from most state guidelines – excluding tests – and can range in size from one student learning at home to thousands across the country.

Popular charter schools include New York’s Success Academy network, which has 34 branches, and the 24-school BASIS network in Arizona, Texas, and Washington D.C.

Recent estimates find there are approximately three million students in the US currently attending charter schools.

Charters are made up of three specific groups: the Charter Management Organization (CMO), the authorizer, and the school board.

The CMO is a nonprofit that essentially acts as the the school district. It handles the logistics of running the charter school. The CMO also employs the teachers at a given charter school, not the school itself. If the school closes, teachers may be able to find a job within another school overseen by the CMO.

The authorizer controls the actual mission of the school – whether it caters to science and engineering, the arts, or some other focus. Typically, the authorizer is a local university or the state department of education. It’s up to the authorizer to ensure the charter school is making good on its actual charter; if the school isn’t passing muster, the authorizer can pull the charter and close the school.

Finally, the school board functions as a normal board would. It’s made up of parents and community members and effectively does quality assurance on the ground to make sure the authorizer and CMO are running smoothly.

caption
Success Academy, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
source
Success Academy Bensonhurst

Charter schools are often viewed in one of two ways. Advocates like DeVos see them as a leg up for disadvantaged kids and a chance for students in the public-school system to expand their horizons. If a child loves to tinker and build, a charter focused on engineering can encourage those interests.

Like voucher programs, opponents may recognize those benefits but fear they come at too steep a cost. Critics say the charter system competes with public schools because they draw from the same pot of public funds, hurting the kids attending normal public school.

People who oppose charter schools also allege the large-scale donors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, want to turn education into a business model. They claim the extra funds may inadvertently breed segregation in public schools.

One UCLA study, for example, found the majority of charter school students are highly segregated compared to local non-charter students, with 7 out of 10 black charter school students attending schools that have 90% or more minority populations.

Critics point to these kinds of studies as examples that while charters may give preference to individual students, they come at the cost of properly educating many more.