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On Tuesday night, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a confirmation hearing for Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos.
Devos, a longtime proponent of school choice, also fielded questions about her positions on higher education and preschool.
The hearing turned into a vibrant debate among the senators about the merits of education choice, what the federal government can and should do to advance choice, the state of student loans and grants, and the efficacy of preschool.
In her opening remarks, DeVos posed an important question: “Why,” she asked, “in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise school choice?”
Indeed, research in the field of education choice has demonstrated that parents are savvy consumers of education services, schools, and products, and that access to school choice shifts parents “from the margins to the center of their children’s academic development.”
Moreover, University of Arkansas researchers have written that school choice moves parents “from a marginal role as passive recipients of school assignments to active participants in the school selection process in very practical ways.”
This more active role yields impressive benefits for students. Research has shown that school choice improves academic outcomes for participants and for children in nearby public schools, leads to more satisfied parents, and saves money for taxpayers.
Reviewing research on the topic, researcher Greg Forster found that, of all random assignment evaluations conducted to date, 14 out of 18 show that choice improves academic outcomes for students. Moreover, 31 of 33 empirical studies find that school choice improves academic outcomes in public schools.
Forster also found that 25 of 28 empirical studies on the fiscal impact of school choice find school choice saves money.
The Senate hearing also turned to a discussion about school choice options such as vouchers, tuition tax credit scholarships, and charter schools, and what such options mean for traditional public schools.
The essence of the debate was about the definition of “public” education. DeVos suggested that policymakers should be less focused on upholding specific systems and arrangements for delivering education.
Moving away from institution-based funding to student-based funding is smart policy at every level of education.
As economist Milton Friedman argued, just because we publicly finance education does not mean education has to be delivered through government schools. Friedman suggested separating the funding of education from the delivery of education services—an arrangement that is at the heart of school choice.
The hearing also turned to policies pertaining to higher education reform and college costs. When asked whether she would support “free” college, DeVos responded with the basic fact that “nothing in life is free.”
Indeed, “free” college, and generous government subsidies in general, shift the burden of paying for college away from students—who are the direct beneficiaries of attending college—and onto the taxpayers, many of whom do not hold college degrees themselves and will never attend college.
Such arrangements are an inequitable way to think about higher education financing and will only exacerbate the problem of rising college tuition costs.
Instead of pouring more and more money into federal student aid, the new administration, along with Congress, should eliminate the PLUS loan program to make way for better private alternatives.
They should also reform the accreditation system to allow innovative higher education options to enter the market, and eliminate generous public sector loan forgiveness policies that privilege government work over private sector employment.
Finally, the hearing also allowed for an extended discussion about the merits of government-run preschool, including the federal Head Start program.
As a growing body of empirical evidence has suggested, preschool provides few lasting benefits, and large-scale federal preschool efforts are particularly ineffective at improving outcomes for low-income children.
An evaluation of Head Start—the largest federal preschool program—by the Department of Health and Human Services (which administers the $9 billion annual program) found that Head Start had “little to no effect on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of participating children.”
Moreover, evidence from Quebec and Tennessee—two areas with large, taxpayer-funded universal preschool programs—found the programs may worsen the behavioral and emotional outcomes of children. As my colleague Salim Furth and I wrote recently:
Proponents of universal government-subsidized preschool have to grapple with the fact that previous universal programs have failed and had negative social impacts on children …
Government subsidies for child care introduce a large distortion into the market and must be funded by higher tax rates. Particularly in the absence of compelling evidence that subsidized preschool provides an important public good, the subsidies should be reduced, not increased.
Additional federal subsidies for early childhood education would produce negative effects, such as crowding out private providers from the preschool market, which would ultimately limit options for families.
As DeVos, the incoming Trump administration, and Congress prepare to tackle various education-related issues in the coming year, they should prioritize the following to-do list (full explanation of each proposal here):
Support reauthorization and expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Create education savings accounts for children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools.
Allow states to make their Title I dollars portable, following children to schools and education providers of choice.
Allow K-12 expenses to be eligible for 529 college savings accounts.
Enable states to fully opt out of the programs that fall under the Every Student Succeeds Act through the A-PLUS (Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success) proposal.
Ease the cost of college by making space for private lending.
Congress should take this opportunity to advance education choice as appropriate. It should work to restore state and local control of education through the A-PLUS proposal and of higher education through the HERO (Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act) proposal.
Taking those steps would limit federal intervention in education and would create more support for student-centered policies across the country.
Lindsey M. Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues as the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.