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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, has a lot of people nervous. That’s true both for groups who oppose and support school choice.

DeVos is a wealthy Republican philanthropist with a long history of promoting a market-based, privatized vision of public education. In her home state of Michigan, she’s pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

Michigan isn’t the poster child for school reform. Schools there are in disarray. A federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Despite that, DeVos funded an effort to resist more charter school oversight.

DeVos leans far right on social issues. In 2001, she called education reform a way to “advance God’s Kingdom.” Even charter school advocates like Chris Stewart, an education writer and former member of the Minneapolis school board, calls DeVos a “free market ideologue” who supports privatized education for its own sake.

In her contentious confirmation hearing earlier this week, DeVos said that firearms should be allowed in schools in order to protect kids from grizzly bears. The Twittersphere exploded in mockery, producing gems like this:

Can’t believe our kids have to deal with this shit on the way to school every day pic.twitter.com/DOP0cclY5l

— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) January 18, 2017

Earlier this month, I joined KPBS for its weekly roundtable session to discuss what DeVos might mean for California schools. In some ways, the interview may have been premature. Aside from a proposal Trump made on the campaign trail to invest $20 billion to expand school vouchers, plans have been so far been vague. In other words, we don’t yet know what she’s going to do.

Fortunately, we can look at the limitations of DeVos’ role and come away with a few points of understanding.

What is school choice?

Fair or not, DeVos is now the de facto face of school choice. But there’s a lot wrapped up in the concept of school choice, so let’s break it down.

School choice generally refers to the idea that parents should be able to enroll their children at whatever school they think is right for their kids. That includes charter schools – which are publicly funded but independently run – and vouchers, which provide funding to parents who want to enroll kids in private and parochial schools.

But school choice also applies to traditional public schools. In San Diego, parents can apply to send their kids to schools outside of their neighborhood, space providing. That’s been around for decades, and shows no sign of slowing down. In San Diego Unified, roughly 42 percent of parents opt for charters or schools outside of their neighborhood. That’s roughly the same percentage of parents who opted out in 2011, when the district launched an effort to keep more kids in their neighborhood schools.

School board members know that ending school choice could have disastrous results, including some parents leaving the district. That alone will keep the district from moving too quickly to end or significantly reduce options. School choice isn’t going anywhere, at least for now.

The point is, support for school choice doesn’t necessarily mean support for DeVos, charter schools or vouchers.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. They have boards of directors that make big-picture decisions and, in California, they’re usually overseen by school districts.

They have a lot more flexibility than traditional public schools when it comes to spending, curriculum, hiring and firing. Jon Dean, superintendent of the O’Farrell Charter School, compares school districts to ocean liners and charter schools to speed boats: For a traditional school to make changes, their plans must make it through layers of district bureaucracy. Charter schools can make changes more quickly.

That freedom comes with strings, though. If charter schools don’t improve student outcomes, they can be shut down.

In California, funding follows students – and therein lies the tension. It’s the basis of the argument that charter schools siphon resources and bright students from traditional schools and make it harder for the latter to improve. Teachers unions don’t like the fact that most charter school teachers aren’t unionized and see charters as an existential threat.

How does support for charter schools compare to support for vouchers?

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America, does a great job describing the differences between charter school support and voucher support in this piece for the New York Times:

“Market-based school reforms generally come in two flavors: vouchers and charter schools. They differ in both structure and political orientation. Charter schools are public schools, open to all, accountable in varying degrees to public authorities, and usually run by nonprofit organizations. Vouchers, by contrast, allow students to attend any school, public or private, including those run by religious organizations and for-profit companies.

While charters enjoy support from most Republicans and some Democrats, vouchers have a narrower political base, those who tend to favor free markets to replace many government responsibilities.”

But, Carey writes, if the driving force behind DeVos’ agenda is an effort to promote vouchers, she’ll run up against the basic structures of American education.

On the campaign trail, Trump proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program. That’s a lot of money, though not nearly enough to fund vouchers nationwide. States would be expected to pick up the tab.

Then there are the geographic restrictions to school choice, which require enough population density to provide options. Rural areas have few schools from which to choose.

One possible exception here is virtual schools, which allow students to complete coursework from home. While gaining popularity, the number of K-12 students attending virtual schools remains relatively small.

Could DeVos force vouchers on California?

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law a year ago and replaced the federal No Child Left Behind measure, prevents DeVos from doing a whole lot on school choice policies at the state level.

At her confirmation hearing earlier this week, DeVos said that she wouldn’t force states to adopt private school voucher plans, though she’s promoted them in the past. Regardless, vouchers would likely be a non-starter in California.

The state has a robust charter school market. Last year, across San Diego County, just over 66,000 students enrolled in charters, or about 13 percent of the student population. About 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s students – roughly 26,000 – are choosing charters. And Californians have rejected vouchers at the ballot box twice, first in 1993 and again in 2000.

In fact, charter schools grew out of a debate over vouchers back in 1992. That’s when the state Legislature approved a law allowing charter schools as a way to give parents more options.

“Charter schools were seen as sort of a middle ground compared to vouchers,” said Miles Durfee, regional director for the California Charter Schools Association. “I think we should stick to the middle ground.”

What’s the takeaway for school choice?

DeVos is certainly fanning the flames around the school choice debate, but the fire started a long time ago.

In recent years, much of the tension has focused on charter schools, both locally and nationally. Over the summer, the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, arguing that charter schools create an unconstitutional dual school system. Charter schools have also been accused of exacerbating segregation and excluding students who are difficult to teach.

Of course, the entire structure of public education, where students attend schools based on where they live, also exacerbates inequities and contributes to segregation. And traditional public schools are guilty of some of the same exclusionary practices charter schools are accused of perpetuating.

In some ways, the entire debate over school choice comes down to values questions framed by legal ones. That is, the law ultimately determines what kind of choices available to parents, whether it’s charter schools, vouchers to attend private schools or a desire to choose schools outside of your home neighborhood.

But outside of what the law determines, parents will always be driven by what they think is best for their kids. And that’s true for low-income, middle class and affluent parents alike.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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