How ALEC and Promoters of Privatization Are Helping Legislators Rip Off State Governments

In her story on Iowa’s tuition tax credit program in yesterday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein explains: “Iowa is one of 31 states where legislators have proposed creating or expanding school choice programs this year, without Washington even lifting a finger.”

Knowing that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a great fan of school privatization through vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and the expansion of unregulated charter schools, we might wonder how and why all this school choice expansion Goldstein describes is happening without any assistance at all from DeVos and Congress.

Goldstein mentions one of the primary factors, the American Legislative Exchange Council: “In 2013 and 2014, the most recent years for which financial disclosures are available, several organizations associated with Ms. DeVos invested over $7 million in school choice lobbying efforts in states now considering new bills.  Americans for Prosperity, the activist group founded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council are also pushing private school choice in statehouses across the country.”

One cannot possibly review too often the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state politics. If your state legislature is one of the 31 states now considering some form of school vouchers, your representatives are probably considering one of ALEC’s model laws.  ALEC is what is known as a bill mill, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate member lobbyists and representatives of far-right advocacy organizations promoting school privatization; these people collaborate in writing model bills that can then be introduced by ALEC-members in the legislative chambers of the 50 states. Members of ALEC’s Education Committee have cooked up a number of model bills to choose from: the Special Needs Scholarship Act, the Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit.  The outrageous irony about ALEC is that, despite a long-running legal challenge from Common Cause, it is still considered by the IRS to be an educational, not a lobbying, organization.

Goldstein reminds us that vouchers don’t really serve very many students across the United States, despite that they drain a lot of money from states’ public education budgets: “The number of American students benefiting from private school programs now is relatively small. Estimates by EdChoice, the organization founded by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who first introduced the idea of vouchers, put the number at 446,000 this year, out of a total school-age population of 56 million. Three million attend public charter schools, which Ms DeVos also has championed and which generally do not accept vouchers.” (This blog has disputed proponents of charters who dub the schools, “public.” Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are always privately operated and have been considered in several court challenges as private contractors.  Because charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, students at charter schools have no need to carry a tuition voucher of any kind.)

Goldstein profiles a parent, Mary Kakayo in Des Moines and her participation in Iowa’s already-operating, tuition tax credit program.  Ms. Kakayo would also like to benefit from the newer education savings account program now being considered by Iowa’s legislature: “Tuition credit scholarships like the one that helps pay tuition for Ms. Kakayo’s daughter…. allow individuals and corporations to receive credit on their state income taxes for donations to nonprofits that provide tuition aid to students. Iowa’s program, currently used by 11,000 students, has income limits—$73,000 for a family of four—and the average scholarship award is only $1,583.” We learn that the Kakayos personally pay tuition of $85 per month on top of their tuition tax credit.

Goldstein continues: “Iowa is one of the states where legislators this year proposed education savings accounts, an even more expansive benefit. The accounts (would) give parents state money each year—under one proposal, in the form of a $5,000 debit card—that they can use on private school tuition, home schooling costs, online education or tutoring.  Ms. Kakayo said she would welcome further tuition support from the state, which would allow her to save money for college for Alma and her younger sister….  Under one proposal, after a student graduates from high school, any money left in the account could be used for tuition at in-state colleges.”

Goldstein describes the concerns of opponents of the tuition tax credit program and the proposal being considered for education savings accounts: “Opponents have called the programs a giveaway to religious institutions. All but five of the 140 schools currently participating in the (Iowa) program are Catholic or Protestant, and the Diocese of Des Moines is among those lobbying for the expansion… Opponents also point out that private schools are allowed to reject some of the neediest students, like those who have severe disabilities or are lagging behind their grade level.”

Goldstein examines the financial implications for Iowa’s public schools: “Under the most far-reaching proposal, the new education savings accounts would be available to every child in Iowa without income caps, and include the over 40,000 who are already enrolled in private schools or home schooling.”  She adds: “School districts and some legislators also were concerned that if parents of privately educated students suddenly had access to thousands of dollars in state education money, public schools could be significantly affected financially.”  So far no bill being considered in Iowa has moved far enough for a vote in either of Iowa’s legislative chambers.

To see what might happen if Iowa were to expand these programs, one need only look to Indiana. In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported:  “Indiana’s legislature and then-governor Mitch Daniels first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year.” After Mike  Pence was elected governor in 2012, “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.” Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago that the number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

Launching vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts as part of a state’s education plan is a zero-sum game. Vouchers and tax credits are always a way to redirect some of a state’s public school budget to a privatized alternative. It has never happened that legislators have increased taxes significantly to cover a new voucher program and at the same time protect a state’s investment in the public schools. School privatization undermines the public system even as a parallel system of schools is created. Indiana demonstrates clearly just how vouchers and tax credits are likely to swallow a state public school budget to pay private school tuition for families who have never even considered enrolling their children in public schools.

Fraud and corruption have not been the major problem with vouchers and tuition tax credit programs. The financial scandals have been more prevalent in the charter school sector where money is to be made by the for-profit management companies—profits that can be invested through political contributions that block sufficient oversight by state government to prevent self-dealing that violates the public interest.  Vouchers have primarily provided tuition  to religious schools, which have been less involved in overt ripoffs of tax dollars. However, in the NY Times earlier this month, Kevin Carey profiled a problem in one state where vouchers have involved self dealing and enormous profits:

“Steve Yarbrough is one of the most powerful men in Arizona. As president of the State Senate, he has promoted a range of conservative policies, including a tuition tax credit system that provides over $100 million per year to finance vouchers for private schools.. But Mr. Yarbrough is not just a champion of tax credit vouchers. He also profits from them personally… State tax credit voucher programs have grown rapidly in recent years. The number of students receiving them increased to 256,000 this year from about 50,000 in 2005. Arizona has one of the oldest and largest programs… The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) is one of the state’s largest voucher-granting groups. From 2010 to 2014… the group received $72.9 million in donations, all of which were ultimately financed by the state. Arizona law allows the group to keep 10 percent of those donations to pay for overhead. In 2014, the group used that money to pay its executive director $125,000. His name?  Steve Yarbrough… Yet the group doesn’t do all the work involved with accepting donations and handing out vouchers. It outsources data entry, computer hardware, customer service, information processing, award notifications and related personnel expenses to a private for-profit company called HY Processing.  The group paid HY Processing $636,000 in 2014, and millions of dollars in total over the last decade. The owner of HY Processing? Steve Yarbrough, along with his wife, Linda, and another couple.  (The “Y” in “HY Processing stands for ‘Yarbrough.’)”

Carey explains: “(I)t’s not clear that states can be relied upon to prevent self-dealing. Mr. Yarbrough’s personal financial interest in tax credit vouchers first received wide attention in 2009…. Yet in the years since, Mr. Yarbrough has continued to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from overhead funds.”  And as president of the Arizona senate, “He also supported the expansion of the tax-credit system.”

Last week when the PBS NewsHour profiled Indiana’s school voucher program, Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s public school superintendent warned: “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.” “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”

Check Out PBS NewsHour’s Fine Report on School Vouchers

On Tuesday night, the PBS NewsHour in collaboration with Education Week reporter Lisa Stark aired a short and almost perfectly framed piece on Indiana’s school voucher program. Vice President Mike Pence, who is responsible for the rapid growth of Indiana school vouchers, is, like the new education secretary Betsy DeVos, an avid champion of parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools.

In her report, Stark captures the church-state issues by contrasting a public school, Fairfield Elementary School, with Emmaus Lutheran School, both in Fort Wayne. Vouchers and tax credits across the states fund primarily religious schools where the tuition is low enough to be offset by a modest voucher. The U.S. Supreme Court—in the controversial 2002, Zellman v. Simmons-Harris decision—found vouchers to be legal under the U.S. Constitution, though some state constitutions ban the expenditure of public dollars in religious schools. (This blog covered the church-state, First Amendment issues here.)

The most devastating impact of vouchers and tax credit programs, however, is to create a separate system that devours state public school budgets. Stark is clear from the outset: “At the heart of the debate (is) money, and how education dollars are divvied up.  Normally, the state distributes tax dollars to public schools to educate students. In Indiana, that’s about $5,800 per student. Vouchers change that. A portion of the money, the tax dollars, follow the student instead, allowing parents to use those dollars to pay tuition at the private school of their choice.”

Stark shows video footage of two nurturing, high-quality schools—a public school and Lutheran school, and she interviews their principals to learn about how the rapid growth of vouchers has affected each school. She also interviews Robert Enlow, the president of a national lobbying organization: EdChoice. Here is the background on EdCoice that Stark can’t cover in her short piece. EdChoice is today’s name for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the foundation started by Chicago free-market economist, Milton Friedman. Standford University professor, Martin Carnoy recently described Friedman’s role in promoting vouchers in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute: “As originally conceived by Milton Friedman (1955), the purpose of vouchers is to break the ‘monopoly’ of public schooling and extend families’ school choices for their children to include private education. Friedman, and voucher advocates more generally, argue that an education market that includes private schools competing on a financially level playing field with public schools, can deliver schooling more cheaply and satisfy consumer needs more effectively because private education is more efficient than public.” EdChoice’s Robert Enlow is introduced by Lisa Stark as an advocate, and advocate he does—beginning with this non sequitur: “We have seen over time our traditional school systems, because they’re based on zip code assignment and where you live, not providing always the best options for families.”

Stark also interviews Fort Wayne’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Wendy Robinson, who clarifies that the explosive growth of the voucher program in Indiana has not been neutral in its impact on the public schools: “If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.” “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.”

In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post filled in more of the background that Stark couldn’t cover in a short piece for the NewsHour:  “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.'”  Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “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.”

Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago on new data just released from the state. The number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

In January, Valerie Strauss published a column by Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s state school superintendent until she was defeated in last November’s election. Ritz summarizes how deeply implicated key members of the Trump administration are in a commitment to expand the ideology of the former Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice: “Indiana’s school choice program started under a prior governor as a small pilot, tailored to poor families that did not believe public schools were providing their children with an adequate education. Gov. Pence, however, escalated this program into a de facto entitlement for middle-upper-class families, pulling millions of dollars from our poorest schools so that these more affluent families could subsidize a private school education for their kids. Betsy DeVos wants to expand these voucher programs to as many states as possible. Pence likes to claim that Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. What he does not like to admit is that in five years of this program, Indiana’s taxpayers have sent more than $345 million to religious schools with little to no state oversight or regulation. These taxpayer dollars would have otherwise funded public education in our state.”

Here is what Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s school superintendent tells Lisa Stark in Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour interview: “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”  Please do watch this short piece on Indiana’s school voucher program.

HR 610 Vouchers Unlikely; DC Voucher Renewal Advances Without Protecting Vulnerable Students

There is a lot of fear about House Resolution 610, Iowa Rep. Steve King’s proposal for national school vouchers that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. But don’t be too fearful; this particular bill is unlikely to go anywhere.

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s primary reporters on federal education legislation, explains what this bill is: “The Choices in Education Act of 2017… would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main K-12 law, of which the Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version. It would create vouchers funded by Washington for parents to use at private schools if they chose to do so, or to use for home schooling their child. Under King’s legislation, the federal government would fund those vouchers through creating block grants for states… In addition, King’s bill would overturn nutritional standards published in 2012 for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.”

The purpose of Ujifusa’s recent column is to calm widespread worries about the bill, concerns tied to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ declared commitment to launching a federal voucher program of some kind. Ujifusa reminds readers that DeVos cannot institute a voucher program without Congressional approval; he adds that rural members of Congress, “have expressed concern about a federal voucher program, in part because they don’t feel private school choice will help many of the children back home.” Ujifusa explains that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. King, does not sit on the House committee that oversees education, and the bill is legislatively complicated because another committee on agriculture would have to oversee the provisions of the bill to change the school lunch program. Ujifusa adds: “In fact, in 2015, the Senate rejected (Sen. Lamar) Alexander’s proposed amendment to ESSA that would have instituted a voucher program. And the Senate now has more Democratic lawmakers than it did then. It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote to create nationwide, federal vouchers.”

Congress will likely need a different vehicle from HR. 610 if it acts on Trump’s and DeVos’s promise of a federal voucher program. But Congress is moving forward with another voucher bill, one that has historically been opposed by Democrats, but a bill that has passed before and is likely to pass again in a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers. This is the renewal of the Washington, D.C. voucher program.  Keep in mind that Washington, D.C. does not have voting representation in Congress. That means this bill is the ultimate piece of legislation for other people’s children. Whatever happens with D.C. vouchers, there won’t be political consequences for any elected member of Congress.

Here is Jenna Portnoy explaining the D.C. voucher bill for the Washington Post: “The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, gives federal dollars to low-income D.C. students who want to transfer from struggling public schools to a private school. The program, created by Congress in 2004, also provides additional federal dollars to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.”

In a letter to leaders of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that is currently holding hearings on the SOAR Act, the National Coalition for Public Education, a coalition of 62 national organizations that has consistently opposed school vouchers, points out that the D.C. Voucher Program, in existence now for over a decade, has not been shown to improve education for the majority of the students who have participated: “All four of the congressionally mandated USED (U.S. Department of Education) studies that have analyzed the D.C. voucher program have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement. The USED studies further found that the voucher program had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety… GAO (Government Accountability Office) reports from both 2007 and 2013 document that the D.C. voucher program has repeatedly failed to meet basic and even statutorily required accountability standards. The 2013 report concluded that the administrator of the program has continually failed to ensure the program operated with basic accountability measures and quality controls and even failed to maintain adequate records on its own financial accounting… A special investigation conducted by the Washington Post found that many of the private schools in the program are not quality schools.”

Valerie Strauss published a column earlier this week about one of the SOAR Act’s greatest flaws: it does not protect the civil rights of participating students. “Democratic members offered amendments that would prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against students on the basis of ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity’ and requiring each voucher school to provide every student with special needs ‘with all of the applicable protections available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.’ They were voted down along party lines, with all Republicans voting against.” “Students with disabilities who attend a private school with a voucher awarded through the program lose some of the civil rights protections they are granted under IDEA. For example, IDEA requires that traditional public schools have an individualized education program that spells out needed support and accommodations for students with disabilities, but private schools aren’t required to offer one. That’s common with state-funded voucher and tax-credit programs, including tax-credit programs in Florida championed by DeVos.”

Marc Egan, who leads government relations for the National Education Association, is quoted by the Washington Post analyzing D.C. private schools that accept tuition vouchers: “They may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.”

While Washington, D.C. does not have a voting member of Congress, the nation’s capital is represented by non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose testimony on the SOAR Act is quoted by the Washington Post.  Norton is not at all impressed with the D.C. Voucher Program she has been observing since 2004, and she opposes its renewal: “The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: It has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests…. The program is therefore patently unnecessary.”

Betsy DeVos: Religion, Money, and School Choice

When we think about public schools and religion, there are some clear boundaries, and it is important to recognize them and understand how various churches and Christian denominations understand them, because there are distinctions. These issues are relevant today because some people who are part of Donald Trump’s administration want to bend the boundaries.

Protecting freedom of religion, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first clause (the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s endorsing any one religion as the religion of our society, and the second clause (the Free Exercise Clause) guarantees citizens of the United States the right to practice whatever religion they choose or not to practice a religion. Our Constitution protects religious diversity, which has historically been understood to mean that public schools, defined by their acceptance of public tax dollars, may not force children to practice any particular religion.

It is also essential to understand these issues with some nuance.  Betsy DeVos was brought up in what is known as one of the Reformed denominations, and she is known to want to bend the boundaries on protection of religious freedom, but this does not mean that all members of Reformed Protestant denominations share her views about bending the First Amendment rules in publicly funded schools.  The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, for example, are well known Reformed communions that strenuously defend the separation of church and state in public schools.

Neither should it be assumed that all charitable partnerships of churches with public schools cross the boundary and abuse the principle of religious liberty.  It is perfectly appropriate for churches to donate backpacks filled with school supplies, tutor children in public schools, help set up and staff after-school programs, and set up and help staff computer labs near schools that lack such facilities as long as the work is charitable and lacks the goal and practice of evangelism.  Many such programs across the country assist children and teachers, and their sponsors adhere to principles declared by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant communities of faith.

In a very important article in Rolling Stone, Betsy DeVos’ Holy War, Janet Reitman, the reporter, has provided a very important profile of Betsy DeVos and her circle of Christian extremists. But in some subtle ways, Reitman makes assumptions about Reformed church denominations and assumptions about church partnerships with public schools that call into question the commitment of those involved with public school support programs. All members of Reformed churches are not extremists, just as not all volunteers and sponsors of school-congregational partnerships are involved in proselytizing.

But, as Reitman accurately portrays her, Betsy DeVos is an extremist and her support for the expansion of vouchers and tuition tax credits crosses the boundary drawn by the U.S. Constitution to protect religious freedom.  Reitman’s Rolling Stone article is important because it explains the activities and philanthropic contributions of Dick and Betsy DeVos to promote their particular religious agenda.  They seek to make our society conform to their own religious beliefs.

Reitman describes, for example, the support of Michigan’s DeVos family and Betsy DeVos’s parents and their family, the Princes, of a secretive organization, the Council for National Policy, a “little-known group of several hundred of the country’s most powerful religious and social conservatives.”  The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind apocalyptic series of books. Reitman lists other members whose names have leaked out: “Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt; financier Foster Friess; religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins; right wing operatives like Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation;  the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms.  More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.  Rich DeVos, who described the group as a nexus of ‘the doers and the donors,’ served two stints as CNP’s president.”

What is the significance of this alliance of ideological conservatives and extremist Christian religious leaders? “What became clear as the 2000s progressed was just how much these two agendas had fused. Under the direction of Charles and David Koch, and with increasing influence from the likes of the DeVos family, the Republican big tent shifted, from the Grand Old Party to what one longtime strategist who’s spent years mapping these networks refers to as the ‘Grand New Alliance’ of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism… This new perspective, sometimes called the ‘biblical worldview,’ was being sold at special ‘pastor policy briefings’ across the country… At one I attended in Orlando, in 2012, David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and a leading Christian nationalist, patiently explained to a room of Florida pastors, why a radically reduced federal government was part of God’s plan. Jesus, for example, was opposed to the capital-gains tax, Barton said, citing passages in the books of Romans and Matthew.”

School privatization through vouchers (or tuition tax credits which are a variation on vouchers) is definitely central to this plan.  Why?  Here is how Patrick O’Donnell begins his story on Ohio vouchers in this past Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “Almost all of the money from Ohio’s main tuition voucher programs—97 percent of it—flows to private religious schools, a Plain Dealer examination of records from the 2015-16 school year shows. Christian schools, as expected, receive the bulk—more than $140 million in state tax dollars a year.  Catholic and Christian schools in Cleveland are the biggest winners, thanks to a Cleveland-only voucher program that was the first in the state when started in 1996. The top three private schools to benefit—Cleveland Central Catholic, St. Joseph Academy and Metro Catholic—are schools in Cleveland, as are seven of the top 10 in the state.”

On December 20, 1999, Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, found the Cleveland Voucher Program unconstitutional because it violated the Constitutional protection of religious liberty.  Page after page of Judge Oliver’s decision quotes participating schools’ mission statements.  One school explained, “An integral part of the school program is instruction in religious truths and values. These values permeate the whole atmosphere of the school.”  Judge Oliver’s decision declared: “The court concludes that the Voucher Program violates the Establishment Clause… because it results in prohibited governmental indoctrination and because it defines its recipients by reference to religion.”

In 2002, however, in a split 5-4 decision, the Rehnquist Supreme Court declared the program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because the state of Ohio grants the vouchers to the parents, not directly to religious schools, and the parents then choose where to educate their children.  The state of Ohio, said the Supreme Court, is offering school choice to parents, not spending money directly on religious education.

Reitman describes many of the organizations funded by Dick and Betsy DeVos that have re-framed vouchers as “school choice”  without any connection to the boundary between church and state—thereby changing many people’s understanding of the Constitution—and that helped drive the political shift that changed the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The DeVos and Prince families have donated millions of dollars to the Council for National Policy, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, All Children Matter, the Great Lakes Education Project, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  Another recipient of DeVos money has been the Institute for Justice, whose attorneys have brought and litigated pro-voucher lawsuits across the states.

Reitman’s Rolling Stone article explores what she calls the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology that she believes Betsy DeVos epitomizes: “No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products.  Amway—short for ‘American Way’—now has annual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s ‘Founders’ Fundamentals’: faith, freedom, hope and reward,” a “merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”

School Privatization Means Loss of Public Investment to Profits and Sacrifice of Students’ Rights

Here is how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson begin their newest book, American Amnesia, that explores the subject of America’s capitulation to the belief that government is the problem, not the solution to our society’s concerns: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because American’s cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends… Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Exactly how our turning away from government has affected public schools is the subject of a fascinating analysis by Alex Molnar, Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold.  Molnar—a Research Professor and Publications Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—painstakingly traces the history of the development of public education as “an egalitarian institution that was redistributive in its effects… Public education in the United States has from its earliest days been structured to embody and strengthen representative democracy by inculcating democratic values….”  But, “The major education reforms of the past 35 years—education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies, to subject them to the ‘laws’ of the ‘market’; and to put them at the service of the economic elite.  The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.” It is also a world where “the progressive edifice that Roosevelt… constructed (in the New Deal) would have to be set aside, taxes on wealth and profits reduced, wages suppressed, and a greater share of government costs shifted to the working class.”

Molnar marks the beginning of our times with the economics of Ronald Reagan, which “replaced the citizen’s democratic right to a ‘voice’ in shaping their public schools with a consumer’s choice to ‘exit’ schools. Under the banner of ‘school choice,’ public education would thus be removed from democratic control and reformulated as a commodity to be ‘chosen.'” Our society has been wooed away from supporting public schools. “Under pressure from and with the aid of charitable foundations, wealthy philanthropists, and ideologues, government policy makers have steadily shifted control of the schools from locally elected school boards to appointed governing bodies. A for-profit school sector has emerged that depends entirely on taxpayer and philanthropic funds. Accountability has been shifted from government regulatory oversight mechanisms to ‘market discipline.’… Getting this myth ‘believed’ meant new opportunities to turn tax dollars into profits—profits from, for example, paying a few teachers more and many teachers less; profits from designing standardized tests; profits from renting school facilities; profits from managing schools; profits from data management systems and test scoring systems; and profits from selling software platforms and computing devices. Best of all, these profitmaking opportunities came with little or no government oversight to thwart self-dealing and ferret out fraud and abuse.  Oversight and regulation had by this time been successfully characterized as innovation and achievement killers.”

In his analysis Molnar highlights two prominent abuses that have emerged with the wave of school privatization—the removal of what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government”—regulation and oversight which are said by the privatizers to kill innovation, and the distortions that result when government funding flows to private profits. Conveniently, two exposes in the press this week—mere examples of the cascade of stories we are reading about abuses in charter schools and other privatized education ventures—exemplify the very problems Molnar highlights.

The first, These For-Profit Schools are ‘Like a Prison’, comes from Pro Publica and was jointly published at Slate.  It is an expose of staff abusing students in private, for-profit alternative schools run by Camelot Education. Camelot “contracts with traditional school  districts to run about 40 schools across the country—schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically.  In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago.  The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.” Pro Publica‘s story covers problems in York and Reading’s Camelot schools in some depth. “Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school-district officials to… (transfer their students to) Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet.” “Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school, instead counting only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools.” “Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly people of color.”  Pro Publica‘s report describes Camelot schools as resembling “the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed above all else, to maintain obedience and control.”

Because Camelot schools are privately operated, even courts investigating complaints of physical abuse of students have struggled to acquire evidence or get staff to testify after their schools threatened staff with job loss. Some parents describe being pressured to sign away their children’s due process rights at the schools.  The Pro Publica reporters describe a lawsuit brought against a Pensacola, Florida Camelot alternative school: “Pensacola’s school district stayed out of the Tillery cases. It let Camelot investigate and address them, said Vickie Mathis, the director of alternative education for the district. ‘They are Camelot employees,’ she said. ‘We expected Camelot to do the investigation and come to a finding and take action if there was a finding of wrongdoing.'”  The reporters do cite two school districts—Reading, Pennsylvania, and New Orleans—where, to protect students’ rights, public “school officials cut ties with Camelot as abuse allegations emerged.”

Then there is Ohio, where enormous profits from the online academies are being used to block the very regulations that would protect the state’s investment in its public schools. The legislature needs to increase oversight to prevent massive over-payments by the state for students the e-schools claim are enrolled, but who do not participate actively in online education.  Over-payments for phantom students in Ohio’s electronic schools have been regularly reported in the state’s newspapers, but this week the story made headlines in Education Week: Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute: “The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year, but state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total… Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school’s learning software….  Historically, the Ohio education department determined student attendance, and thus enrollment, based on paperwork submitted by e-school representatives, who certified that students were enrolled and had been offered the 920 hours of learning required by state law.”

Now when regulators from the Ohio Department of Education are cracking down to insist that the state pay only for students who are actively participating and that e-schools do more than merely offer the curriculum, the e-schools are pushing back. ECOT has taken the state to court to block the enforcement of stricter regulations, and William Lager, who reaps the profits from both of his privately owned companies that manage ECOT, has hired the state’s most prominent lobbyists as well as keeping up the contributions to legislators’ political campaigns. The Ohio House and Senate, not surprisingly, continue to refuse to pass strict and explicit regulations. (This blog has covered the ECOT phantom student scandal here.)

Together these articles explore and expose what has been happening through school privatization and school reformers’ efforts to undermine the coercive power of government.  Only government—the law and its democratic enforcement—can protect students’ civil rights and our public investment in education.

So… What’s Wrong with School Choice (Privatization) at Public Expense?

In his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, President Donald Trump extolled school choice, another name for offering students, at public expense, the opportunity to attend a privately operated school.  He asked Congress to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”  Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, amplifies Trump’s preference for school choice with an adjective. She says families need a “robust” set of choices.

So what is wrong with school choice—school privatization—at public expense?  Here is some of what’s wrong.

FRAMING — First there is the deceptive framing by ideologues—inspired by economist Milton Friedman, and the foundation now called EdChoice, that he left behind as a legacy. Carl Davis of The American Prospect pays close attention to the language: “Politicians have long had a knack for framing policy proposals, however controversial, in terms that make them more palatable to voters… (S)chool voucher programs that funnel public money to religious schools are cast as ‘school choice,’ because underwriting parochial schools with taxpayer dollars is controversial. The ‘choice’ frame has heightened public awareness of school voucher programs, and helped their advocates make significant inroads in convincing states to allow the use of public dollars for private schools.”

DIVERSION OF TAX DOLLARS — Then there is the problem of diversion of tax dollars away from the schools that serve the mass of our children. Chalkbeat Indiana summarizes data about the large school voucher program launched six years ago by Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded later when Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor: “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017… To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year… Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019 on vouchers due to higher anticipated participation.” Here is the most stunning fact: over half of the students in Indiana’s program—54.6 percent—have never attended a public school.  The state has simply begun paying for students to attend private schools.

WINDFALL FOR WEALTHY INVESTORS — Federal law permits large investors to claim state tuition tax credits as charitable donations and receive a federal income tax deduction.  Davis in The American Prospect explains: “Because taxpayers are also permitted to claim a federal charitable tax deduction on their donations to ‘neovoucher’ (state tuition tax credit) programs—even if they were already fully reimbursed for those gifts by their state governments—the result for some taxpayers is a tax cut as large as $1.35 for each dollar donated.  Like many tax loopholes, this one is not geared toward ordinary taxpayers.  A quirk in federal law limits the benefit primarily to high-income taxpayers  So, in effect, a handful of states have created elaborate tax schemes that allow wealthy taxpayers to generate risk-free private returns of up to 35 percent.”

POOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT IN SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS — There are also serious questions about the quality of the private schools that are being funded by vouchers and tuition tax credits.  Kevin Carey, writing in the NY Times, recently described three new studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio: “But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.  The results are startling….  Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning.” (This blog covered Carey’s report here.)

SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS MAY NOT PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS — In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Miner, who has covered the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee for many years, summarizes the ways that such schools may violate students’ rights: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency.  They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech.  They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services.  They can suspend or expel student without legal due process.  They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records.  They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

POOR MANAGEMENT — Questions persist about shoddy operations in voucher schools and schools operating with publicly funded tuition tax credits. In another analysis of the Milwaukee program, Erin Richards in The American Prospect notes that the state has finally instituted minimal regulations and standards, because the problems have been egregious over the Milwaukee voucher program’s 26 year existence: “(P)ressures for reform have led to more regulation of the voucher program, which has belatedly begun weeding out some of its worst actors. The private school teachers and leaders are now required to at least have bachelor’s degrees. The schools have to obtain accreditation, though lawmakers had to later tighten that language to get rid of irresponsible accreditation agencies. If the state has reason to believe a voucher school is financially unstable, it can require leaders to secure special bonds that assure the state they could pay back public funds if they go belly up.”

SHOULD PUBLIC DOLLARS VIOLATE PROTECTION OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION? — Finally. religious schools receiving public vouchers and tax credit scholarships may be violating constitutional protection of the separation of church and state..  Although in a divided 2002 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris found vouchers to be constitutional, as long as the money is given to the parents to make a school choice and not donated directly by the state to the school, a number of states have nineteenth century Blaine Amendments in their constitutions, banning the expenditure of state dollars for religious education. Tuition tax credits have been the method by which several of these states have evaded their constitutions’ prohibition of state support for religious education. The taxpayer diverts tax dollars to a non-governmental organization, which then awards the tuition scholarship to  families, who then choose a school.

Many of us, however, question whether government ought to be paying for religious education in schools our tax dollars are supporting. A case in point is the education received by Denisha Merriweather, the woman brought by President Donald Trump last week to sit with his wife in the gallery during his Congressional address.  Merriweather was held up as a glowing example of a student who succeeded in school, graduated from a university, and is now in graduate school, all due to the tuition tax credit she received as a young child from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program being held up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a model for the federal program she hopes will be launched during her tenure.  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss describes the school attended by Merriweather: “With her tax credit scholarship, Merriweather attended the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning.  It was established in 2001 with a vision, according to the website, that ‘was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.,’ which ‘included a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values.’  It uses the A Beka curriculum, used widely by private Christian schools and some home-schoolers, according to this listing of private schools published by the Jacksonville Times -Union. A Beka teaches the Bible as literal history.”

Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school ear, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent.  This year is not an anomaly.  So what is going on?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host school systems: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.