Our nominated education secretary, Betsy DeVos, appears poised to upend the status quo. She’s pumped millions of her own fortune into supporting voucher programs, using taxpayer dollars for private tuition. She’s especially charmed by charter schools.
Though eager to fork it over when prep schools come knocking, she slams the door when the outstretched hand belongs to a publicly funded school.
I graduated from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in 2013. Despite recent criticism that our district’s too competitive and classes are cutthroat, I’m grateful for my free K-12 education.
It’s the reason my family decided to pay the second highest property tax in Mercer County. And it’s also the reason why, out of all in Trump’s cabinet, Betsy DeVos scares me the most.
Prestigious private schools, including The Lawrenceville School, Princeton Day School and Peddie, are a 20-minute drive from most homes in West Windsor.
But like many immigrants in the area, my parents couldn’t afford the six-figure price tag to send two kids there every year. Nor could they navigate the competitive admissions process with broken English and full-time jobs.
If my family had been offered a voucher under DeVos’ grand scheme, we likely would have taken it. My classes would’ve been smaller.
I would’ve gotten more one-on-one attention from my teachers. The counselor might not have asked me to fill out a detailed survey before writing my college recommendation. There would have been soap in the bathroom dispensers. Maybe even full-size lockers.
But I might not have learned to focus in open classrooms, unafraid to shout a wrong answer with confidence. I wouldn’t have signed a petition to fix public health guidelines, after learning the defrosted pizza on my Styrofoam tray counted as a vegetable serving (because under a thick layer of cheese lay two tablespoons of tomato sauce). I wouldn’t have been able to walk myself home from school on days both my parents worked.
Our high school still struggles to maintain its diverse reputation. As Asian students became the majority, I remember a dozen or so of my classmates who transferred to prep schools. All but one were white.
DeVos’ policies would only expedite ongoing white flight from public schools, not just in West Windsor but across the country. And the resulting segregation in our education system is something voucher programs won’t likely fix.
In San Francisco, whites make up 29 percent of the school-age population but just 12 percent of students in the city’s public schools.
In the South, a 2016 report by the Southern Education Foundation found that private schools are re-segregating classrooms into rich and white or poor and black. Furthermore, it reported that vouchers have done little to diversify them.
Voucher programs can also hinder student progress. Recent studies on the programs in Louisiana and Indiana found that reading and math scores declined after voucher recipients transferred to private schools.
Yet, there was an unexplained advantage among these private school transfers. When it came to a college degree, they were more likely to attend and finish a four-year school compared to their public school peers.
Even at Middlebury College, the school I attend offering need-blind admissions and a generous financial aid budget, prep school diplomas are the norm, rather than the exception. The college’s website estimates 48 percent of Middlebury students graduated from private school.
Though the split is near 50-50, it’s nowhere close to the national statistic. The National Center for Education Studies reported just 10 percent of school-age children went to private school in 2014.
That means my college lured nearly half its incoming class from that one-tenth sliver of all American students. The median family income among students is $244,000 and nearly a quarter belong to the wealthiest one percent of all American households, according to a recently published New York Times report.
Playing the numbers game, I was lucky. But what will be the odds of my peers—not just the 800 or so WW-P students in the class of 2013, but the three million other 18-year-olds who graduate each year without the privilege of private schooling—to attend an elite college after DeVos cuts funding for public schools? After she puts national voucher programs into place? A quality and free education gives every American a shot at the “American Dream,” no matter their party, race, income or immigrant status. In conservative speak, education spending is the rising tide that lifts all boats.
If Trump’s administration champions merit, hard work and grit among our country’s founding values, our education secretary should invest in public schools, not defund them.
— Hye-Jin Kim, West Windsor