Accountability Betsy DeVos Charter Schools Home Schooling School Choice Separation of church and state Vouchers

ALERT! Red State Governors Push DeVos Privatization Agenda As They Celebrate “School Choice Week”

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Betsy DeVos made the goal of school choice clear: Shift public dollars away from public schools and transfer them to privately managed charter schools, online schools, for-profit schools, home schools, and vouchers for religious schools. She never supported public schools. Her actions emboldened her followers in Red States to make a full frontal attack on public education. Please share this information on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Alert your friends and colleagues. The attack on public education rolls on, despite the overwhelming evidence that charter schools do not get better results than public schools unless they cherrypick their students, and voucher schools get worse results, while most avoid accountability and transparency.

The Red State governors want to fund failure, instead of adequately and equitably funding their most important responsibility: the public schools.

In this article, Carol Burris–with research assistance of Anthony Cody and Marla Kilfoyle–of the Network for Public Education reports on the action in the states to advance privatization of public funds.

It is school choice week. Across the country, conservative state legislators are sponsoring “school choice” bills that would divert public funds to charter schools, online schools, and/or private and religious schools and homeschools.  

The 2020 election resulted in gains for Libertarian Republicans in statehouses who are now aggressively pushing school voucher bills, whether they be through the use of devices such as “Education Opportunity Accounts,” tax credits, or direct subsidies from state tax dollars. These bills would have a devastating impact on the funds available to support public schools struggling through the pandemic.   

But of course, that is the point. Make no mistake. Those proposing these bills are hostile to both the idea and the ideals of district-run public schools.

In addition to new voucher programs, state legislators are also promoting the expansion of charter schools, the imposition of capricious regulations on public schools, and the undermining of their democratic governance.

In Iowa, the Governor has proposed a law that would allow the state board, as well as districts, to authorize charter schools, thus placing charters in school districts that do not want them. A bill under consideration in Missouri would authorize a dramatic expansion of charter schools and make it simple for a small minority of voters to initiate a recall of elected school board members. Kansas legislators are pushing to allow public funds to flow to private schools with little public oversight, and New Hampshire legislators are again pushing a universal voucher program. 

Here is a summary of some of the bills that have been introduced.

Arizona 

Over three years, Senate Bill 1041 would increase the amount the state spends on corporate School Tuition Organization vouchers, from $5 million to $20 million. In 2017, tax dollars diverted into deductible voucher “donations” exceeded a billion dollars, providing “donors” with a dollar for dollar tax credits. Senate Bill 1452 expands the state’s ESA voucher. 

In a move hostile toward public schools,  Senate Bill 1058  requires schools to compile and publish a list of every resource used in classrooms the previous year — including online videos, articles, and websites. The purpose of this burdensome requirement is to allow parents to opt their child out if they do not agree with the instructional content. In what is clearly a show of hostility to district public schools, the bill does not apply to private schools, including those whose students receive vouchers, and charter schools have more relaxed rules. 

Florida 

Florida SB 48 aims to merge and expand the multiple voucher programs that already exist into two programs. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “the 158-page proposal would merge the state’s five key school choice programs and make them all state-funded. It would also convert the scholarships into more flexible education savings accounts by merging the state-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship program, an ESA program, with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and the Hope Scholarship Program. Also, it would merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities with the Gardiner Scholarship Program under a new name–the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.”

Make no mistake–these are not scholarships in the traditional sense–provided when a needy student receives tuition-help because she has attained high grades. These “scholarships” are all disguised vouchers to private and religious schools, resulting in taxpayers paying for private school education. If passed, this bill would also reduce the frequency of audits to detect fraud from every year to once every three years, increase the yearly growth rate of voucher programs, and via ESAs, expand the use of public funds. 

Georgia 

House Bill 60 is a neo-voucher that would allow students who withdraw from a local public school to take state funding with them to use as a scholarship to a private school. In Georgia, about 50% of school funding comes from the state. This would have a devastating effect on school districts who would likely lose far more than they would save by an individual student’s withdrawal. One of the eligibility criteria for this ESA voucher is that a student’s school not be 100% open for in-person instruction, thus targeting schools whose elected leaders have made decisions about the safety of their school communities.  As with many of these proposals, the pandemic is being exploited to advance a privatization agenda.

Indiana  

 House Bill 1005 would greatly expand the state’s voucher program by allowing families with incomes up to $145,000 a year to participate. That amount is near twice the median income of families in the state and provides taxpayer assistance to families who can already comfortably afford to send their child to a private school. According to an estimate from the Legislative Services Agency, it could increase the number of students receiving state stipends by about 40% in 2021-22.

Some 12,000 students already attending such schools would be eligible for state funding–costing taxpayers $100 million in the first year alone. In addition, the bill would add a new “Education Savings Accounts,” which would be made available to parents with students with special needs. 

 Iowa 

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has proposed SSB 1065, (now known as SF 159) which is being fast-tracked through the state Senate.  This “school choice” bill would:

  • Provide up to $5,200 per student in “state scholarships” for parents to use for private school tuition or homeschooling expenses. 
  • Greatly expand charter schools in the state by allowing applicants to start a charter school by going straight to the state board, bypassing the school district.
  • Allow students to transfer out of their local public schools with a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan

According to Senator Pam Jochum, this bill is being fast-tracked because, “Obviously, the faster they move it, the less chance there is for push back from the public that’s not happy with this kind of a change because it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private.”

Kansas:

House Bill 2068 and Senate Bill 61 are allegedly designed to expand school vouchers in the state via a tax credit program. They are, at their core, an attempt to create a taxpayer-funded invitation to discriminate. 

According to the Kansas School Boards Association, these bills would allow private schools that discriminate in admissions based on achievement, religion, gender, disability, or sexual preference to participate in the tax-credit program. They would neither be required to be accredited nor report student results. 

“Scholarships” created by these tax dollars could be as generous as $8,000.

Kentucky 

House Bill 149 would create a new “Education Opportunity Account” program that would allow participants to divert their tax dollars into accounts to be used as voucher funds for private or parochial school tuition.   

Missouri 

There is only one intent of Senate Bill 55–to destroy public education in Missouri. It was pushed through the Senate Education Committee last week. This mega bill began as two Senate bills to create vouchers and expand charters. They were then loaded onto SSB 55 at the last minute, which included provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing. According to the Missouri School Boards Association, the bill now includes:

  • School Board Member Recall: Requires an election to recall a school board member if a petition is submitted signed by at least 25% of the number of voters in the last school board election. It would also restrict members of the state board of education to one term.
  • Education Scholarship Account/Vouchers: Creates up to $100 million in tax credits for donations to an organization that gives out scholarships for students to attend a home school or private school – including for-profit virtual schools.
  • Charter School Expansion: Authorizes charter schools to be opened in an additional 61 school districtslocated in Jackson, Jefferson, St. Charles, and St. Louis counties or in cities of 30,000 or more and allows charters opened in provisionally and unaccredited districts to remain open even after the school district regains accreditation.
  • Direct Access to Virtual Charter Schools: Allows students enrolling in MOCAP (The Missouri CourseAccess and Virtual School Program) full time to apply directly to the vendor, thus pushing the resident school district and professional educators out of the process.

New Hampshire

House Bill 20 would create a universal voucher program entitled “Education Freedom Accounts,” which would take state dollars from monies allocated to support public schools and give them directly to parents to use for private school tuition, homeschooling costs, and other education-related expenses. The per-student amount would range from $3,786 and $8,458 based on eligibility and costs.  

Conclusion

During her 2019 appearance at the Education Writers Association, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos attempted to re-define the very definition of what public education is. 

“Let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education,” she said. “Today, it’s often defined as one type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.” 

According to DeVos’s definition, public education, as we know, it is “government education”, while the term public education is used as a substitute for the word “learning.” Take your child to a museum—by DeVos’s reasoning, that is “public education.” Teach them how to ride a horse, or how to storm Congress to air your grievance—according to this definition that would be “public education” as well. 

This is not just rhetoric—it is at the heart of the right-wing Libertarian philosophy that believes that parents should be fully in charge of where and what children learn. The bills that are being pushed in statehouses across America represent that philosophy.

Persuading Americans to buy into such a radical concept took years of work. Joseph P. Overton, an electrical engineer, was senior vice president of the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the 1990s until he died in 2003. The Mackinac Center is located in Michigan, Betsy DeVos’s home state. Overton is most known for creating the Overton Window—a means by which to analyze and rebrand extreme policies to make them more acceptable to the public. According to Overton, only those policies identified as “in the window” are politically possible. Therefore, if one wishes to make the unacceptable or unthinkable acceptable, the solution is to shift the window.   

According to Mackinac, the example Overton often used to illustrate the window’s movement is the changed public perception of school choice. In the 1980s, advocating for charter schools was politically dangerous. As charters became more acceptable, so did school choice, which in turn allowed conservative politicians to advocate for homeschooling, private school tax credits, and charter expansion. 

And here we are today. What was once unthinkable–the dismantling of our nation’s public schools–is now a real possibility. 

It is up to those who believe in the promise of public education to join together, recognize these legislative attempts for what they are, and defeat them before it is too late. If we do not act, there may be choices, but democratically governed public schools will not be one of them.

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