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Trejos: School choice opponents often don’t understand program

Jose Trejos, Columnist

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently gave a powerful speech at Harvard University in defense of the school choice movement, which was interrupted by dozens of students waving signs — including one proclaiming her a “white supremacist.” These protests demonstrate a disturbing ignorance from the activists on the issue. The school choice movement not only offers a strong improvement over the public education system, but also most stands to benefit minorities and low-income people for whom progressives claim to protest.

It’s hard to overstate the wastefulness, neglect and racism systemic in the American K-12 education system. Last year, the U.S. ranked third in the developed world in government spending per student, yet sat near the bottom in nearly all major international education tests. Deep divisions also exist among class and racial lines: Public schools are largely funded by local property taxes, so wealthier students are systematically assigned to better-funded and usually better-managed schools. Meanwhile, the number of public schools with 75 percent black or Hispanic students has almost doubled since 2001, from 9 percent to 16 percent. Nationally, these schools almost categorically provide the least resources and result in some of the worst outcomes for students.

The school choice movement has a simple idea: expand the number of options for children doomed by their zip code. The key part of the movement is charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and therefore have more administrative freedom than traditional public schools. Charter school students consistently perform better in nearly every meaningful metric than their socioeconomic counterparts, and are more likely to attend and graduate college. Though the advantages of charter schools are typically minor for well-resourced white middle-class families, studies show low-income and minority students can reap enormous benefits.

The school choice movement also prominently features school vouchers, which are meant to give underprivileged students the option to attend private schools. School voucher programs slightly improve academic performance compared to traditional public schools but less consistently than charter schools. Nonetheless, policymakers are discussing promising reforms to the voucher approach, and a convincing majority of economists believe vouchers could generally improve our education system.

The real controversy with school choice is not the issue of whether it helps students, but rather the way in which it does so. Charter and voucher-funded schools largely deliver improved results by having the freedom to negotiate when dealing with teachers’ unions, often cited as a large source of the education system’s issues. Since teaching is sensitive to skill, unions largely dedicate themselves to defending the worst-performing teachers, to the detriment of students they teach.

It’s worth noting that polling consistently shows the majority of black and Hispanic people express support for school choice. However, unions have something a lot more persuasive: money and activism. Teachers unions are among the biggest political donors, spending $33.2 million in 2016.

It’s disturbing to see students label someone a white supremacist for supporting a policy primarily aimed at improving schools for minority and low-income students. The student protesters believe they are fighting a conspiracy to destroy the education system and give money to a nebulous vision of evil rich people. It is amazing how students who seemingly care enough about the issue to publicly attack the education secretary have very little understanding of the other side.

Jose Trejos is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at josetrejos2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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