Betsy DeVos had no experience in education prior to becoming President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. In fact, she and her children only attended private schools. DeVos’ experience explains her objectives to change the American education system to favor private and charter institutions, especially religious ones, over investing in public school.
DeVos’ policies have trickled down to Northeast Ohio Public Schools. While there are certainly some beneficial aspects of the American education system, it simultaneously fuels systemic problems, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, and often fails to provide comparable educational opportunities for students in different neighborhoods or counties.
Case Western Reserve University tries to mitigate these inequalities through scholarships such as the Provost Scholars program, Cleveland Scholars and the Joan C. Edwards Scholarship. All three of these programs partner with either the Cleveland Metropolitan School District or East Cleveland to offer local students a full-tuition scholarship to CWRU. However, these programs are quickly threatened by the prioritization of private schools.
We must recognize that the government has a responsibility to provide the right to education, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status.
The Educational Choice Scholarship (EdChoice) Program offers students from select schools the opportunity to attend primary or secondary private schools. In Ohio, students are eligible for vouchers based on income or enrollment at a low-performing school. Enrollment in EdChoice, scheduled to start on Feb. 1, was recently delayed as the state congress could not shorten the list of failing schools. The delay has frustrated many supporters, including private school and Christian policy organizations, resulting in chaos and a lawsuit.
However, while the EdChoice program should, in theory, support better educational opportunities, it is coming at the cost of other students in public schools. A recent investigation by Channel 5 Cleveland found that many of the students who benefit from the EdChoice vouchers have never attended public school. Northeast Ohio public schools lost $36 million to fund these private and religious education vouchers in the 2019-2020 school year. Eight specific districts paid more than $1 million to subsidize the costs. Further, out of the over 6000 students who received vouchers in these districts, 63.5 percent were never enrolled in their respective public school. So, it would seem that these students are bypassing a key component of the program—to improve your education due to a specific experience in public school.
Further, the top five private schools which received these funds were all religious in nature. The top four were Christian and Catholic schools, while the fifth was Judaic. These schools, despite receiving funding taken from public schools, are often able to choose their own curriculum. Given Christian beliefs, students are likely to receive no comprehensive sexual education and be taught creationism over evolution.
This is not to say that EdChoice has been all bad. There have, of course, been cases in which students benefited from the opportunity to leave struggling public schools. However, the program continues to have glaring flaws. EdChoice is a band-aid covering a disease, doing little to treat the underlying issues.
While CWRU is a private institution, we have a duty, as academics, to promote education from an early age. Programs such as EdChoice take money from public schools to help fund education at private schools. It’s up to private schools—be they primary, secondary or higher—to advocate for the prioritization of high-quality education for all.
CWRU has made a commitment to bettering public schools and offering students at struggling high schools the opportunity to pursue higher education through scholarships. Through the Provost Scholars program, for example, middle and high school students in East Cleveland public schools are partnered with a CWRU faculty mentor. Upon completion of the program, the Scholars are accepted to CWRU with a four-year scholarship. These programs are among CWRU’s efforts to address the inequalities in public education as they specifically affect Cleveland. However, the EdChoice program weakens and undermines these efforts by using public funds to finance select education at private schools. The private voucher program disrupts the core of these programs designed to counteract the problems within public education.
CWRU would do well to continue supporting the Provost Scholars program as well as our other full scholarship programs for students from Cleveland public schools. Furthermore, we must emphasize the problems with the EdChoice program as it currently stands, and demand that our public school partners and students within the community are not deprived of their education to fund a private institute.