Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican philanthropist, whom Donald J. Trump selected on Wednesday as the next secretary of education, has spent her career promoting a market-based, privatized vision of public education. If she pursues that agenda in her new role, she is quite likely to face disappointment and frustration.
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.
Working primarily in Michigan, Ms. DeVos has been a strong advocate of vouchers, and her charter work has often focused on making charter schools as private as possible. The large majority of Michigan charters are run by for-profit companies, in contrast with most states. The DeVos family donated more than $1 million to Republican lawmakers earlier this year during a successful effort to oppose new oversight of charters.
That support made Ms. Devos a natural choice for Mr. Trump, who proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program on the campaign trail, and has likened the public school system to a monopoly business that needs to be broken up.
But any effort to promote vouchers from Washington will run up against the basic structures of American education.
The United States spends over $600 billion a year on public K-12 schools. Less than 9 percent of that money comes from the federal government, and it is almost exclusively dedicated to specific populations of children, most notably students with disabilities and students in low-income communities. There are no existing federal funds that can easily be turned into vouchers large enough to pay for school tuition on the open market.
Mr. Trump’s $20 billion proposal would be, by itself, very expensive. It may be hard to fit into a budget passed by a Republican Congress that has pledged to enact large tax cuts for corporations and citizens, expand the military and eliminate the budget deficit, all at the same time. Yet $20 billion isn’t nearly enough to finance vouchers nationwide, which is why Mr. Trump’s proposal assumes that states will kick in another $110 billion.
States don’t have that kind of money lying around. The only plausible source is existing school funding. But even if Ms. DeVos were to find a willing governor and state legislature, it’s not that easy. Roughly half of all nonfederal education funding comes from local property taxes raised by over 13,000 local school districts. They and their elected representatives will have a say, too.
This is where the intersection of geography and politics makes any national voucher plan much more difficult to enact. The practicality of school choice is highly related to population density. Children need to be able to get from home to school and back again every day. In a large metropolis with public transportation, there could be dozens of schools within reasonable travel distance of most families. In a small city, town or rural area, there will be few or none.
And population density, as Americans saw in the last election, is increasingly the dividing line of the nation’s politics. A significant number of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters live in sparsely populated areas where school choice is logistically unlikely. At the same time, many of the municipalities where market reforms are theoretically much easier to put in voted overwhelmingly against the president-elect.
On Election Day, voters in liberal Massachusetts rejected a ballot measure by a 62-38 margin that would have increased the number of charter schools in the state, despite strongevidence that the state’s well-supervised charters produce superior results for low-income and minority schoolchildren.
In theory, information technology offers a way around the population density problem. Virtual schools can be attended from anywhere with an internet connection. For-profit colleges that have pocketed billions of dollars by offering low-quality online courses are poised to make a comeback under the Trump administration, which is likely to roll back President Obama’s efforts to regulate them.
But the federal government is a much larger financial contributor to colleges and universities than to K-12 schools, and college students don’t need an adult looking after them all day. Ms. DeVos will probably be a boon to the relatively small, growing population of families that home-school their children. But most parents will still want their children in a school building during the day, taught by a teacher, not by a computer.
Ms. Devos will also be hamstrung by the fact that her deregulated school choice philosophy has not been considered a resounding success. In her home state, Detroit’s laissez-faire choice policies have led to a wild westof cutthroat competition and poor academic results. While there is substantial academic literature on school vouchers and while debates continue between opposing camps of researchers, it’s safe to say that vouchers have not produced the kind of large improvements in academic achievement that market-oriented reformers originally promised.