Over the past couple of decades school privatization has been normalized.
Here is Carol Burris, chair of the Network for Public Education: “The drive to privatize the public education system under the guise of ‘choice’ is well underway—and can be expected to pick up steam when Donald Trump becomes president. He chose as his education secretary a Michigan billionaire named Betsy DeVos… who has said the public education system is a ‘dead end.’…. (P)ublic education has been the frog in the pot of water, as school privatizers and ‘education reformers’ have slowly turned up the heat. Over 1 million students receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school , and close to 3 million attend charter schools. Whether the adjective ‘public’ is in front of the word ‘charter’ or not, charters are at the forefront of school privatization.” Of course 50 million children and adolescents across America are enrolled in traditional public schools, but that is harder to remember in the avalanche of rhetoric.
Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network reflects further on the way promoters of privatization have used language to cloud our thinking: “Education marketers have rebranded ‘public schools’ to mean any institution that gets tax dollars. And the phrase ‘doing what’s best for kids’ has been turned into an empty PR slogan. The operative political term of the day is ‘what parents choose for their children,’ which has become a de facto argument to justify any kind of education option—even if parents are being suckered into bad choices or are being forced into situations where high quality education options are practically unobtainable.”
David Dayen, writing for The NATION, warns that we are likely to see a rapid increase in privatization with Donald Trump’s administration: “Trump’s advisors all fall in a comfortably snug ideological range, with a dedication to doctrinaire conservative economic beliefs about tax cuts and deregulation. And another area of consensus sticks out: the idea that government should outsource public functions to private industry. In the Public Interest, a research organization monitoring privatization, has complied a list of 32 different members of the Trump transition team or formal nominees for top agencies who have either close ties to privatization groups, or demonstrated support for the philosophy.”
Despite that school privatization was not a primary theme of Trump’s political campaign—nothing like the wall along the Mexican border or the rebirth of coal mining or ‘Lock her up!’—some of the nation’s strongest supporters of privatizing pubic education are at the heart of the new administration.
For example: Mike Pence.
As Indiana’s governor, Pence rapidly expanded the statewide school voucher program originally passed in 2011 under his predecessor, Governor Mitch Daniels. The original Indiana voucher program, as reported by Emma Brown of the Washington Post, was capped “at 7,500 students in the first year” and restricted “to children who had attended public schools for at least a year… Two years later, Pence entered the governor’s office with a pledge to extend vouchers to more children.”
Brown quotes Pence, from his inaugural address in 2013: “There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach.”
Describing the rapid expansion of vouchers that Pence signed into law, Brown continues: “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers, and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year. The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly. By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system… The state Education Department says taxpayers are taking on $53 million in tuition costs that they were not bearing before….”
Then there is Betsy DeVos herself and her record of a lifetime of working with the nation’s preeminent privatizers. Caitlin Emma titled her piece for POLITICO on Monday, Jeb Bush’s Consolation Prize. Emma reminds us of Jeb’s myriad school privatization projects in Florida and also across the states after he organized Chiefs for Change, the network of far-right state superintendents of public instruction. One member of Chiefs for Change, Hanna Skandera of New Mexico, is currently under consideration as education deputy secretary or undersecretary—right under Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education.
Emma’s article is a Cliffs Notes summary of Jeb’s record and his personal collaboration with Betsy DeVos: “If DeVos is confirmed by the Senate as most expect, Bush could see his views on education—repeatedly ridiculed on the campaign trail by Donald Trump—given new life as she turns their shared vision into national policy. For years, the former Florida governor and DeVos worked side-by-side to push ‘school choice’ policies that steer taxpayer funding to charter and private schools—which critics blame for undermining traditional public schools. They served together on the board of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, to which DeVos and her husband gave large contributions. The DeVoses also contributed to Bush’s presidential campaign.”
Emma connects Bush and DeVos in the development of Trump’s idea for a $20 billion federal block grant to states as an incentive to expand school choice through vouchers and charters: “One of Trump’s biggest education promises—a proposed $20 billion block grant promoting charter and private schools—was developed with input from DeVos’s D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children… Now the programs the two crafted together in Florida and other states are likely to serve as models for federal policymaking—indeed, they have already influenced Trump’s statements on the campaign trail… Bush co-founded Florida’s first charter school in 1996. In 1999, during Bush’s first year as governor, Florida became the first state to launch a statewide voucher program.”
Commenting on Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, Bush said: “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”
Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s policy-wonk writers on federal education legislation, published a piece in late December about another privatization scheme Trump’s administration could perhaps more easily push through Congress if expanding vouchers and charters were to face legislative roadblocks: “Generally speaking, tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice. Right now, according to EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation) 17 states provide some form of tax-credit scholarships for students. In 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind, introduced the Educational Opportunities Act, which would grant a tax credit of up to $4,500 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations that provided donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that award needs-based scholarships to defray students’ cost of private school scholarships. The American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group chaired by DeVos until recently, applauded the legislation when Rubio and Rokita introduced it.”
Ujifusa explains the wonky reason tax credits would be an easier way for the Trump administration to privatize education: “To pass it, lawmakers could use a process called budget reconciliation that would only need a majority of votes in the GOP-controlled Senate to get approval. That would mean such a program would be immune from a possible filibuster led by Democrats opposed to using the federal tax code to support school choice. By contrast, budget reconciliation could not be used to make federal Title I money ‘portable’ to private schools.”
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled its hearing on the Betsy DeVos nomination Wednesday, January 11, 2017. This post is intended to fill in some background on Ms. DeVos as you prepare to call your Senators. One thing is very clear. Betsy DeVos and her collaborators to undermine public schools by expanding privatization have been around for a long time. They have been working together. They know what they are doing.