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Morgane Le Bris, principal of École Mur de Bretagne juggles a class of 27 students and two different grade levels. She wishes she had more money to hire teachers to reduce class size. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz/Hechinger Report

PARIS — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says she first became passionate about school choice after visiting a private school in Michigan that provided scholarships to low-income students. Although the scholarships gave students a “chance to succeed and thrive,” she knew that for every student who received a scholarship, “there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs,” she said in a speech this March. She added, “The realization of this injustice moved me to get involved.”

The Trump administration’s budget proposal this year asked for $250 million to “replicate successful private school choice programs and build evidence around what works.” The Senate scuttled the plan, but DeVos suggested vouchers could become part of the tax overhaul instead. Congress included a provision making a popular higher education savings program available for K-12 private schools tuition in the new tax code, a move which DeVos praised. 

In theory, vouchers and other private school choice programs open up the same menu of educational opportunities to all, according to DeVos and other school choice supporters. Parents are freed from financial constraints and can pick a school in which their child will thrive, leading to improved academic outcomes for all children.

In practice, research shows mixed outcomes for the roughly 448,000 American students who attend private schools through taxpayer-funded programs. Some thrive, but many do not. And not all students who make use of voucher programs are low-income. Other countries have gone much further than the U.S. to subsidize their private schools. Their results are also mixed.

France is already serving as a test case for the belief, like that espoused by DeVos, that private school choice can increase equity. The nation heavily subsidizes private schools, which enroll more than 17 percent of French students, compared to 10 percent in the U.S. In parts of the country, like Brittany, more than 40 percent of students are enrolled in a private school.

But France hasn’t erased the all the barriers that prevent lower-income families from accessing the best schools, even with huge amounts of government money poured into helping them get a leg up. The country still has a multi-tiered system, with low-income students frequently shut out of the most elite private and public schools. In practice, most low-income students can only pick between their local public schools, which many say are under-resourced, and cheaper private schools, which face their own budget challenges.

France has one of the highest gaps in performance between low- and high-income students in the developed world as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam given every three years to most developed and many developing nations.

These results aren’t purely a result of how France funds its schools; there are many other factors that contribute to this problem. Other European nations also heavily subsidize private education and have better results for poor students than France. But France’s system is a cautionary tale of how a country can offer an expansive private school choice system, but still fail to achieve equity.

The French system works like this: Private schools sign a contract with the government in which they agree to accept children of any racial or religious background, to follow the national curriculum and hire state approved teachers. They also agree to regular government inspections. In return, teacher salaries – typically the largest budget item for any school – are fully funded by the government. Schools also receive additional per pupil money from local municipalities.

About 7,500 private elementary, middle and high schools are currently under contract. They receive almost $9.9 billion, combined, from local and federal government coffers, about two-thirds of their total revenue. Nearly 12 percent of the total federal budget for elementary, middle and high schools goes to private schools.

The French system started in 1959 as a way to solve a supply and demand problem. There were too many baby-boomers for the public schools to handle. The subsidies allowed private schools to keep tuition costs down; by the mid-80s, the policy was viewed as a means of providing more choice to families who otherwise would be unable to access those schools.

Related: Betsy DeVos may push vouchers — but how would that impact students with the greatest needs?

The average private school tuition for schools with a government contract is 1,000 euros (about $1,180) annually, according to Thomas Jallaud, director of FABERT, an organization that advises parents trying to pick a private school. That price is well within the grasp of middle-class families. Many schools depend on the subsidies for their existence, and make it a point to keep their tuition rates below the average to ensure almost anyone who wants to enroll, can.

But some educators in France say that this isn’t enough to make sure that all families have the same options. For starters, a subset of schools doesn’t have contracts with the government ¾ including some of the top private schools in the country ¾ and they’re often prohibitively expensive. The median tuition of independent private schools that don’t receive government subsidies is around 7,500 euros, Jallaud said.

Elisabeth Chatenet, principal of École Maternelle Paul Gervais, a public preschool in southeastern Paris, opposes spending taxpayer money on private schools. Her school has a diverse mix of students, both racial and economic. Every year, she sees her strongest students go off to private primary schools, while weaker students enroll in public schools.

Even though private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race or religion in their admissions, critics say they can skim the highest-performing, least-needy students off the top, using academic and behavioral criteria.

Prior to coming to Paul Gervais, Chatenet worked in a public school in one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods for several years. Many of her pupils lived in public housing, which she described as rat-infested and riddled with lead paint that made the children sick. It’s no surprise that private schools often boast better results than public ones, she said. “It’s like a race where they [don’t] have the same chances.”

Related: I got to choose private schools, but will vouchers really help other kids make it?

On the 2015 PISA science results, France’s public-school students scored 20 points lower than those in private school. The organization that administers the exam, OECD, said the difference could be explained by the fact that public schools serve significantly more low-income students, who tend to perform worse on tests. If public and private schools served students with the same socioeconomic backgrounds, public schools would actually out-perform private schools. This held true for 22 OECD countries, including the United States, where voucher programs have failed to eliminate disparities in access and achievement.

The results of Louisiana’s voucher program are particularly poor, research shows; many experts say that’s partly because schools can choose whether or not to participate in the program, much like the French system. Many of the most elite private schools don’t accept voucher students.

“It’s like a race where they [don’t] have the same chances.”

Other programs don’t do enough to eliminate the financial barriers keeping the poorest families from choosing private schools. Voucher and tax credit scholarship programs vary greatly by state, but don’t always guarantee full coverage of tuition. (Tax credit scholarship programs allow corporations and individuals to donate money to scholarship funds in return for a tax credit.) In Florida, for instance, parents can get up to $5,886 per student to put toward private school tuition. The average cost of tuition, though, is $7,095 for an elementary school and $8,914 for a high school.

Several states that created voucher-like programs targeted at low-income families have since raised the income cap for eligibility, to include middle-class families as well. Critics warn this moves programs further from their intended purpose: closing the opportunity gap. The OECD has found that vouchers targeted specifically to low-income families significantly decrease socio-economic segregation between public and private schools compared to vouchers that any family can use, regardless of income.

After Devos was confirmed, many expected she and President Trump would push for tax credit scholarship programs that would focus on low-income students, said Jon Valant, fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Trump specifically mentioned such a system in his first address to Congress. But the savings account provision in the new tax plan would allow families to avoid paying taxes on payments for private school tuition, a benefit that would largely accrue to wealthier families who are able to put that money aside.

“That is a policy decision. They easily could have targeted that to more disadvantaged families,” Valant said. “Really poor families do not have a lot of money to stick in those accounts.”

In France, the lower-cost private schools that contract with the government often face budget struggles mirroring those of public schools. These schools need government subsidies to stay open, but government funds don’t cover the full cost of educating students. Yet, if the schools raise their tuition too much, or at all, to pay for improvements or to upgrade their buildings, technology and curriculum, they risk driving away families who can’t afford to pay.

École Notre Dame Vezin, a private school located just outside of Rennes in Brittany, charges 240 euro per year. If families can’t afford that, the school can make exceptions, said Principal Anthony Duval. “There’s a priority of access,” he said. The Catholic school enrolls students from all backgrounds, including some Muslims, even though the Catholic Education Association requires the school to offer religious culture classes.

Related: Unmet Needs: Children with disabilities caught in the voucher crossfire

In addition to the money the school receives from the state to pay for teacher salaries, Notre Dame Vezin also gets 200 euros from the municipality for each student over 6 years old That’s the same amount the municipality gives public schools for each student who enrolls from the town.

French private schools receive almost $9.9 billion from the government, about two-thirds of their total revenue. Nearly 12 percent of the total federal budget for K12 education goes to private schools.

But while municipalities pay for public school facilities, Notre Dame Vezin is on its own for the upkeep of the school’s buildings, parts of which are 100 years old. A significant portion of tuition money goes towards that, Duval said. Following a population boom in town, his school has struggled to accommodate the increased enrollment and rented two portable classrooms to make space for its 230 students. The school is saving up to build three permanent classrooms. (The last time the school expanded, 40 years ago, parents pitched in to construct a new building in order to keep costs down.)

The government funding and the small tuition families pay can’t cover all the things Duval would like to do to improve the quality of education for his students. For one, he bemoans the fact that his school is falling behind others in the use of technology. Sitting in the back of one of the portable classrooms, he surveyed the 25 hard-at-work 7- and 8-year-olds filling in a worksheet about verb conjugation and noted that he has only 12 iPads for 230 students right now. “I would like to have one per pupil,” he said.

Duval says without government subsidies, the price of attending his school would be out of reach for many of his students, who would then go back into the public system. He argues that’s a reason public schools should support the subsidy system: to avoid the flood of students they would have to educate without it.

Yet critics of the French system say that spreading government funds across the two sectors means all schools are stretched thin, leaving some public schools, in particular, without the resources they need to serve the students they have. France spends about $7,200 per pupil at the primary level, compared to the United States which spends an average of nearly $11,000, according to the OECD. (At the secondary level, the disparity is less stark: France spends $11,500 per student compared to $12,700 in the United States.)

Morgane Le Bris, principal of École Mur de Bretagne, a public elementary school about two hours west of Rennes, spends her days managing a mixed-age class of 17 first graders and 10 second graders. The 6- and 7-year-olds sit at desks organized in rows as Le Bris scurries across the scuffed floors switching between the two grade levels.

On a Monday morning in October, she prompted the 6-year-olds to practice spelling out three-letter combinations with laminated cards. As they worked out which letters combined to form “pro,” Le Bris turned to read aloud to the 7-year-olds. She shifted gears, called a 6-year-old up to the board to write out an answer, then turned back to finish reading to the 7-year-olds. She looked up at the work on the board as she handed out a worksheet about the story to the 7-year-olds.

The school, which has 144 students, is located right next door to the town’s private school. Le Bris says there’s a small, but perpetual, exchange between the two schools. This year her school lost five students and gained one. She doesn’t resent the private school’s receipt of government funds. But she wishes she had more money to bring her classes down to size.

“I would like to have fewer students in my class. I could work better if I didn’t have 27, if I had 20,” she said in French. “That’s always the problem.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for our newsletter.

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