During her time as Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos has made it very clear she supports educational choice. This week, she even went as far as calling opponents of the movement “flat earthers” who are holding America’s children back.
Educational choice, or school choice, also has a friend in President Donald Trump, and it’s sure to be a huge part of the education conversation going forward. Supporters say it’s a chance for parents to have better control over the type of education their child gets, while detractors say it’s an attempt at privatizing education that funnels money away from already strapped public schools.
But let’s face it, if you don’t have kids in school — or haven’t for a while — you may not even be sure what school choice is.
CNN spoke with Tommy Schultz, the national communications director for the American Federation for Children, to nail down the basics of what, exactly, school choice is and why it’s such an emerging hot-button issue.
What is school choice?
Generally, in the public school system, where you live decides where you go to school. School choice, in a nutshell, adds more options into the mix.
“Educational choice is based on the idea that parents are in control of where their child goes to school,” Schultz says. This can be accomplished through a variety of programs that are typically carried out on the state and local levels. There are some options that apply to private schools, some that apply to public, and even more that apply to both.
What are some types of public school choice?
Public education choices are those that operate within the public school system.
Charter school: This is a school, run by a private group, that is able to operate independently of the school system in which it is located, even though it may receive some funding from them. “Charter schools don’t have the overregulations that regular schools have,” Schultz says, “so they can experiment with different teaching methods. Some children learn best in that environment.” However, some charter schools are so in-demand they attract thousands of applicants for just a few hundred spots, meaning there are often a sizable amount of students who need to be turned away.
Magnet school: A magnet school has specialized courses or academic focuses that draw in especially gifted or interested students. For instance, a school can be a math magnet or a performing arts magnet, or even an agricultural studies magnet. Since they are specialized, magnet schools are often selective and require certain admissions standards for prospective students.
Vocational school: Similar to a magnet school, a vocational or technical school specializes in teaching students certain skills: Farm work, auto mechanics, construction work and the like.
In the school choice model, these types of educational centers serve as alternatives to the typical set of schools prescribed by a student’s neighborhood.
What are some types of private school choice?
In general, private school choice is the more controversial set of education options because opponents claim they take funding away from public schools. These programs either re-direct government funds from a public to a private education, or use charitable contributions to form private school scholarships.
Voucher program: With a school voucher, the state essentially pays for the tuition of a private school using a portion of the funds that would have been spent educating the student at a public school. However, the vouchers are not a carte blanche to attend any school of the student’s choosing. “There will be restriction in most states on what types of schools can use it,” Schultz says, “Or there may be some kind of testing requirement.”
Tax credit scholarship program: In some states, businesses and individuals can get tax breaks for contributing to scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs. These SGOs then provide various types of scholarships to local students. The money doesn’t actually have to be used for private school, either — a family can choose to use the scholarship money to send a student to a public school outside of their district. Schultz says a lot of people conflate tax credit scholarships with voucher programs, and while they’re similar, they rely on a different source of funding.
Education savings account: This is a fairly new type of program. Basically, instead of paying for a private tuition, schools can give funds to a qualifying family on a debit card. This money can be used for any approved educational expenses, like tuition, textbooks, special needs tools or therapies, tutoring, and in some cases, even transportation costs.
What other options are there?
This list is not exhaustive, and some educational choice programs, like the tax credit scholarship program above, can apply to both private and public schools.
“There are a lot of blended models,” Schultz says. “There’s dual enrollment, home schooling, virtual schooling, online classes — just lots of iterations.
Not all of the programs are available in all states, and some states have specialized programs, like the Autism Scholarship Program in Ohio, that garner national attention.
So what’s the controversy?
Once relegated to a small niche of the education sphere, the concept of school choice has found the spotlight since DeVos became education secretary.
“Out of 74 million kids in the US, only 3.5 million are using a school choice program, along with 10 million in private schools,” Schultz says.
As mentioned before, supporters of school choice say it gives parents and students more options instead of being tied down to a single district. They also argue that programs such as the charter school and voucher programs especially benefit families in low-income communities.
There are distinct criticisms of school choice programs: Some argue that siphoning money away from struggling schools is a bad gamble in the long run and is degrading public education, especially in low-income areas that may see an exodus of students due to school choice programs.
Teachers’ Unions are typically not fond of charter schools because they are not unionized. Others worry that school choice is a way for the government to subsidize religious education (which is a no-no) since vouchers and other funding can sometimes be used towards religious schools.
Though she has been a champion of charter schools for decades, In February DeVos made a comment claiming historically black colleges and universities were an example of “school choice.” In fact, HBCUs were founded as a response to ingrained racism and segregation in the country’s public school system. Her most recent comments drew ire as well when she called school choice opponents “flat earthers” who have “chilled creativity” in schools.
Like so many political positions to ponder, future debate over the place of school choice may pivot on DeVos herself. That means it’s even more important to do your homework and know what the issues are.