choice challenge

A Betsy DeVos-approved tax change is meant to make private school more affordable. Here’s why it might not work

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The just-passed tax law includes a big perk for families who send their children to private school: the ability to use certain tax-advantaged savings accounts, which until now could only be used to save for higher education, to pay for K-12 school, too.

That’s led to criticism from those who note that the wealthy stand to benefit the most and that local public school budgets could take a hit, and support from school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos, who argue it will expand access to private schools.

But there’s reason to believe that the move won’t make private school feasible for any more families — and that private schools are likely to raise tuition in response.

Here’s why: All families are eligible to use the saving accounts, known as 529s. That means unlike a lot of state programs that offer private school vouchers or tax credits, the 529s aren’t targeted at poor students, those with a disability, or other specific groups.

In a peer-reviewed 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of these two types of choice programs: those that are restricted to certain populations and those available to all. The latter group — that is, programs like 529s — didn’t lead to any increase in students attending private school, but did cause a sharp hike in school tuition.

This suggests these programs don’t function the way some advocates want them to. Instead of adding choices for families, they offer a windfall to schools. (Keep in mind that students could still benefit if private schools use that extra money to improve the quality of education they offer.)

There is one important reason why private schools may not react to this change in the same way. Although all families will technically be able to use the new 529 rules to save for private school, in practice, only families with enough money to put extra into one of the accounts will be able to participate. In that sense, it could function more like a targeted program, and those have been found to boost private school attendance.

In praising the initiative on Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged the fact that the program is unlikely to benefit poor families.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes and doesn’t empower them in significant ways.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.

next stop

Robotics is bringing Betsy DeVos to Detroit for the first time as education secretary

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos is set to appear in Detroit for the first time as education secretary on Friday, though she’s unlikely to encounter local students when she’s there.

DeVos is scheduled to attend a student robotics competition being held downtown in a bid to promote science and math education. The event is also likely to again highlight DeVos’s past influence over education policy in the city, which has been heavily scrutinized.

Before becoming President Trump’s education chief, DeVos, a prominent Michigan philanthropist, was a key architect of policies that many blame for the dire state of Detroit’s schools.

We’ve outlined that debate in full, but the key points are that the state’s charter law puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open, which has created school deserts in some neighborhoods, and far too many schools in others. Both district and charter schools struggle financially with less-than-full enrollments, while student performance suffers across the board.

DeVos’ critics say she has blocked attempts to bring order and oversight to Detroit schools. Defenders note that parents now have more options and that charter school students in the city do slightly better on state exams than their peers in district schools.

DeVos also had a tense exchange with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” about Michigan schools back in March.

“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she said.

DeVos’s announcement says she plans to meet with students on Friday. But while the event is happening in Detroit, the students DeVos encounters at the FIRST Robotics World Championship on Friday will almost surely hail from elsewhere. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat noted that just one city high school in Detroit qualified to send a team.