Myths and Hype Fueled Charter School Expansion: Here Are 8 Essential Facts

If you value the role of public schools—locally governed, publicly owned and operated—whose mission is to serve the needs and protect the rights of every child, you can be more supportive if you know the facts about charter schools. The public schools across the United States enroll 50 million students, 90 percent.  Charter schools suck money out of state budgets and public school districts while they enroll only 6 percent of American students. We all need to be actively refuting the myths and calling politicians on their errors when they betray their ignorance about the problems posed by the privatization of public education.

Here are eight facts to keep in mind:

  1. While their promoters try to brand them as “public charter schools,” charter schools are a form of school privatization. Charter schools are private contractors whose expenses are paid with tax dollars. Their boards operate privately—very often without transparency.
  2. For-profit charter schools are permitted in only two states—Arizona and Wisconsin. In the 43 other states whose laws permit charter schools, the schools must be nonprofits.
  3. Nonprofit charter schools are increasingly operated—and often highly controlled—by for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).  Sometimes, in something called a sweeps contract, a nonprofit turns over 90 percent or more of its operating dollars to the for-profit management company it has hired to run the school—meaning that the for-profit essentially runs the school.  But that school is technically a nonprofit. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit CMOs.
  4. Charter schools are established in state law in 45 states and the District of Columbia. (West Virginia, the 45th state, just passed charter school enabling legislation in June, 2019.)  There are no federal laws that set up or regulate charter schools.
  5. Across the states, charter school fraud and corruption has run rampant due to weak regulation by state legislatures.
  6. Charter schools and their supporters and lobbyists have used their power to promote charter schools across the state legislatures. Groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s group), and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s group) have lobbied for charter school expansion, and deregulation. Many state legislatures have passed “model” bills which were written and distributed by ALEC’s Education Committee to members of state legislatures who are also members of ALEC.
  7. No state has passed additional taxes to fund charter schools.  When states create charter schools, children who leave public schools to enroll in charters carry away state dollars and essential funding from the public school districts where the children were previously enrolled (see here and here). Public school districts are unable to compensate fully for the loss the public dollars that used to pay for public school services but have now been redirected to a privatized sector.
  8. Since it was begun in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has served as a sort of venture capital fund with grants to states to fuel the startup and expansion of the charter school sector. More than $1 billion has been wasted on charter schools which never opened or eventually shut down.  Proponents of the program, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have claimed this waste of tax dollars is acceptable because the money fueled educational innovation and entrepreneurship—even if there was a high rate of failure.

Several of the Democratic candidates for President of the United States have been playing to public school supporters by opposing for-profit charter schools. For the American Prospect, Rachel M. Cohen reports that by opposing for-profit charters, several of the candidates seem to be distancing themselves from charter schools; she adds that two or three have even supported the idea, endorsed by the NAACP, of a moratorium on new charter schools until their impact has been carefully assessed. Cohen adds that candidates seem to be noticing public opinion polls that report “dwindling support among white Democratic voters” for charter schools.

Candidates ought to be calculating their positions based on the facts, however, not on shifts in political opinion.  If you know the 8 essential facts about charter schools described in this post, you will wonder:

  • How can so many of the candidates be so ignorant about the relative absence of for-profit charter schools?
  • Do these politicians not know that the for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), not the charter schools themselves, are sucking profits from the tax dollars allocated for the nonprofit charter schools they manage?
  • How can so many candidates seem unaware of the importance of our nation’s world class system of public education and poorly informed about the ways the public schools are threatened by the expansion of charters?
  • Are candidates trying to have it both ways—by being for and against charter schools at the same time?
  • Why do so many of the candidates not care enough to become informed about the needs of public schools and the challenges school privatization poses for public school districts?

Maybe the level of misunderstanding or the amount of disinterest is because school privatization, like school funding, is primarily a state-by-state issue.  But there is at least one area in which the matter of charter schools ought to be of urgent interest to every member of Congress and every Democratic candidate for President: the demonstrated catastrophe of the federal Charter Schools Program.  (See fact #8.)

The following question ought to be asked at every candidates’ debate or forum or town hall or coffee with a Democratic candidate for President:

The federal government—through the federal Charter Schools Program—has been subsidizing the startup and expansion of charter schools with grants to states. But the Network for Public Education and even the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General have criticized this program due to the utter absence of oversight. More than $1 billion has been invested through this program in schools that never opened or that ultimately shut down. Will you pledge to terminate the federal Charter Schools Program program?

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Tony Evers, Inaugurated as Wisconsin Governor, Faces a Divided State But Has Backing from Strong Public Education Network

In his fine book on the political ramifications of the 2010 Red-wave state elections, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer describes state politics marked by big money and the impact of the Tea Party: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign.  Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds…. In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country… Wisconsin’s was the most notorious legislation adopted during this period… Wisconsin’s ‘Budget Repair Bill’ (Act 10) largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees…  (Act 10) marked a singular triumph for the ALEC network.  Not only did the bill embrace principles laid out in ALEC model legislation, but its passage was made possible by an extensive corporate investment in local politics. (Governor Scott) Walker himself is an alumnus of ALEC, and from 2008 to 2012 he received over $400,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC-member companies. In addition, forty-nine members of the 2011 Wisconsin legislature were ALEC members….” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-49)

Yesterday, January 7, 2019, Tony Evers, a Democrat, was inaugurated to replace Walker as Wisconsin’s  governor, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature remain Republican—and ALEC-dominated.

Some are encouraged by the new governor’s cabinet picks.  On Sunday, reporters for the Wisconsin State Journal called Evers’ cabinet picks pragmatic: “Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ Cabinet roster points to a pragmatic approach aimed more at building consensus and managing agencies than fighting ideological battles or transforming how agencies operate, according to both Republican and Democratic observers.” Most cabinet appointments must be approved by the state senate, so we’ll wait to see whether Evers’ choices are acceptable to a highly ideological legislature.

Before his election as Governor, Evers was Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction; as a new governor he is permitted by Wisconsin law to choose his own replacement without required senate confirmation.  He has announced he will appoint Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who has been serving since 2001 as an assistant state superintendent. Public school supporters are encouraged by his choice.  Stanford Taylor was formerly a school principal at two elementary schools and a middle school in Madison, where at one time she was president of the local teachers union. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that when Evers named Stanford Taylor, he presented her as “a thoughtful leader… She is known and respected throughout the education community for her commitment to equity and her work to help all students reach academic success.” The Wisconsin State Journal’s report also quotes the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, “who praised the pick. ‘I think she’ll do a great job as superintendent.'”

As he left office, Scott Walker signed lame duck bills designed to curtail Evers’ power after he is in office. Many have predicted infighting and gridlock. But so far Evers has been upbeat and proactive. As the departing, lame-duck legislature debated bills to curb his power, Evers and his staff in the state superintendent’s office traveled across the state for a series of People’s Budget Listening Sessions to focus citizens on what must be his first priority in office—the next state budget. The press blurb Evers released after the first listening session, which attracted 230 people, begins this way: “Green Bay — Governor-elect Tony Evers, Lt. Governor-elect Mandela Barnes, and transition policy staff heard from Fox Valley residents who attended the first “Building the People’s Budget” event at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  Governor-elect Evers and his team are focused on building a budget that reflects the values and priorities of the residents of Wisconsin…. Transportation, public education, healthcare, and jobs were among the highest priority issues for attendees in Green Bay.”

Evers has already announced one budget priority. Wisconsin Public Radio reports: “Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers… wants Wisconsin property tax bills to show how much people are paying to support private voucher schools. The plan is one of many Evers will introduce as part of his first state budget, which will be the first proposed by a democratic governor in Wisconsin in eight years… ‘At some point in time as a state, we have to figure out whether we can afford two or three separate allocations of public schools,’ Evers said in an interview Wednesday. ‘People in Wisconsin don’t know how much school districts are losing because of vouchers and how much is being deducted from their aid. They need to know that so that we can as a state have a good discussion about what’s involved with the voucher program.'”

One thing Tony Evers can count on—even in his divided state where gridlock is anticipated: support from a tightly organized statewide network of public education advocates. The Wisconsin Public Education Network and its executive director Heather DuBois Bournane regularly update hundreds of public school activists and even encourage a network of volunteers to submit columns to their local newspapers.

In a recent column published in the Appleton Post Crescent, Jane Parish Yang, James Bowman, and Nancy Jones explain the importance of helping citizens understand Evers’ priority issue—the financial loss experienced by public school districts as money is redirected to Wisconsin’s statewide private school tuition voucher program: “The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, the statewide voucher program is one of three privatization programs in Wisconsin…  The WPCP was added to the budget in 2013 with no public hearings…  As more people seek the voucher payment, costs have increased statewide—from $3.2 million in 2013 to an estimated $54.6 million in 2018-19 for a total of $139.5 million during that time period… A close look at the ‘choice’ program reveals that most parents in the WPCP do not exercise choice. They simply seek a payment from the state for their child’s private school tuition. Of the students currently receiving a voucher, 77 percent attended private school last year.  Only a minority transferred from a public school. Consider the effect of the WPCP on the residents of one community, the Fox Cities. For the current year, 552 vouchers were issued to residents of the community’s six school districts… The cost is substantial: six years of vouchers in the Fox Cities have cost local taxpayers $13,379,651.”

The damage to Wisconsin public education during Scott Walker’s tenure has been devastating.  It will be fascinating to watch Evers, who knows education from his years as state superintendent, try to leverage the power of the governor’s office behind improving public schools—with the backing of the massive and organized Wisconsin Public Education Network.

Teachers’ Walkouts Define the Danger of the Corporate Agenda to Destroy Public Education

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education.  Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.

Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?…  Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC.  In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)

Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.”  The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.

Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)

The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots.  We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009.  Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.

Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”

The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers.  And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.

Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)

Illinois Senate Overrides Rauner’s School Funding Veto; Will House Save New Equity Plan?

School finance in somebody else’s state seems like the ultimately irrelevant, boring, and “in-the-weeds” kind of topic. Except that what is happening in Illinois ought to interest us all because it is a microcosm of today’s ideologically driven, rancorous and dangerously divisive state politics.

In Illinois, discord between the General Assembly—both houses dominated by Democrats—and the far-right Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, has left a statewide school funding crisis looming over the beginning of the school year. In July, the legislature overrode Rauner’s veto of the state budget, but then on August 1, Rauner vetoed part of the school funding distribution formula on which the budget was based. Gov. Rauner has the power in Illinois to veto or amend parts of a piece of legislation, and he used his “amendatory veto” on the school funding formula.  Rauner also showed his true political priorities right after the Democratic legislature overrode his budget veto when he fired key officials in the Governor’s office and replaced them with a staff from the Illinois Policy Institute, an ALEC-affiliated, far-right think tank.

But there are new developments this week. On Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate overrode the Governor’s school funding veto. The outcome in Illinois now depends on the House, which begins a special session today to try to resolve the crisis. It is expected that a veto-override will be harder to arrange in the Illinois House.

Here is some background on the school funding crisis threatening the wellbeing of children in Illinois as the 2017-18 school year begins. Until the first week of July, an ideological impasse between Rauner and the legislature had left the state without a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago.  The funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. In June, after Rauner vetoed a state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together on July 6 to override his veto. But the budget stipulated that school districts would not be able to access their state funds until the Governor approved an “evidence-based” school funding formula, passed by both houses of the legislature, but not yet sent to Rauner for his signature.

Then on August 1, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Illinois law permits Rauner to impose what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto”—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner called  “a bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools. (Here is an explanation of some of the complexities of Illinois law and the current school funding mess.”)  After Rauner vetoed parts of the school funding formula, the Chicago Tribune explained: “Rauner’s veto sets the stage for weeks—and potentially months—of uncertainty, kicking the issue back to Democrats who control the General Assembly. The senate now has 15 days to consider the veto, then the House gets another 15 days.”

This past Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate voted, 38-19, to override Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto of the school funding plan. Here is Tina Sfondeles for the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Illinois Senate on Sunday moved quickly to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory veto of a school funding measure he’s declared a Chicago bailout…. The Illinois House has 15 days to act on an override…. State aid payments to school districts were to be sent out on Aug. 10—but the state needs an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula approved before it can release those funds, per an agreement Democratic leaders inserted into a budget package. The vote came a day after the Illinois State Board of Education released an analysis of the veto that found Chicago Public Schools would receive $463 million less in funding this next school year under Rauner’s funding plan than the measure approved by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly.”

The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that the city of Chicago, whose mayor controls the nation’s third largest public school district, has said it would deliver an additional $269 million to the Chicago Public Schools “from the city of Chicago government to balance its $5.79 billion operating budget for the coming year, school officials announced Friday… The $269 million in local funding would be in addition to state money that school officials are hoping will arrive through school-funding legislation that’s been the subject of yet another ongoing political battle in Springfield.”  The Chicago school district has been experiencing a funding crisis for years, closing schools, cutting staff, and borrowing until its bond rating has collapsed. Like other school districts across the state that serve concentrations of very poor children, Chicago has suffered for years from a statewide system that fails to recognize disparities across school districts in local taxing capacity and the enormous needs of school districts in poor areas.

In an interview for Alternet with Jennifer Berkshire, Dusty Rhodes, a reporter for NPR Illinois, explains the history of Illinois’ highly unequal school funding, something legislators tried to address in SB1, the bill that recently suffered Rauner’s amendatory veto: “Really what SB 1 is is a way of quantifying what kind of resources a school needs and coming up with what’s called an adequacy formula for each district.  Our current school funding formula just says,  ‘here’s how much it costs to educate a kid in Illinois: $6,119.’  Period. The current formula is also heavily dependent on property taxes, which means that areas with malls and fancy homes are able to spend considerably more on education. So we have a district that spends $32,000 a year per child and districts that spend $7,000.”

As if we couldn’t read the signs that the school funding fight in Illinois is part of the state-by-state, far-right assault on public services, last week we learned that Governor Rauner has been working with Cardinal Blasé Cupich, who leads Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese, to push for the addition of tuition tax credits, a form of private school vouchers into the school funding mix. Rauner is implying perhaps he’ll compromise on the school formula if the Legislature will only insert private school vouchers into the school funding plan. The program Rauner proposes would start relatively small. The state would grant only $100 million in tuition-tax-credit vouchers the first year, but Rauner’s proposal would allow the private school voucher plan to grow rapidly year-by-year. The plan would make children in poor and middle class families eligible—children in families with income up to $113,775.  Tuition tax credit vouchers would significantly reduce the state’s general fund, of course—the pot of money from which public schools are funded.

Illinois exemplifies statewide politics as described by economist Gordon Lafer. State governments have become the focus of a fifty-state strategy by the far-right: “For three decades, beginning in the Reagan administration, authority over social and economic policy and programs has steadily moved from the federal to state governments. Unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, transportation, education and health care spending…. Fewer than one-quarter of adults are able to name their state senator or representative, and fewer than half even know which party is in the majority… For all practical purposes, these debates take place in a vacuum. Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda on such topics encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Twenty-six states today are now dominated by far-right ideologues in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Others are ideologically fractured.  Illinois, with a Democrat-dominated legislature and a far-right Republican governor, is the site of the kind of battle that is lacking in what are now 26 all-Red states, where, too often, taxes have been quietly slashed, school funding reduced, or vouchers, tuition tax credits or Education Savings Accounts passed without a fight. The far-right continues to transform state governments—through massive corporate lobbying and the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its network of statewide think tanks like the Illinois Policy Institute.

Illinois is the perfect window through which we can watch the implications of this kind of fight.

What Can Betsy DeVos Be Thinking?

What can she be thinking?  Can she be thinking at all?  That is what I wondered when I read what Betsy DeVos told the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last Thursday.

Here is what our U.S. Secretary of Education said: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” She continued: “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.'”

In her ALEC speech, DeVos continued, explaining her disagreement with the American Federation of Teachers: “I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.'”

Finally, DeVos summed up what she learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

I guess DeVos has now explained what she meant in 2015 when she declared, “Government really sucks.”  I guess she believes the common good will magically arrive when all this self-seeking is aggregated.

I have a lot of problems with this kind of magical thinking. First, the idea is that government ought to get out of the way, but at the same time, there is the assumption that government ought to pay for it all with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts on top of the traditional schools.  Who is going to want to pay taxes for all of this and why should we?  If individuals are on their own, maybe individuals and families ought to take care of it.

Except that poor families, and families in marginalized groups, and families whose children are severely handicapped, and families whose children need to learn English, and families who live in isolated rural areas and families who live in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities are going to struggle to find places where they can go to find the exact kind of education their children need.  They will struggle to discern the truth through the glitzy advertising, and there may not be good choices in every town and every neighborhood, without the government schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.  And many of these families may not be able to afford it, because they won’t have enough money to add to the voucher to pay for many of the privatized alternatives. And finally, some of the privatized schools (that are not required by government to serve all children) will turn away or push out their children, especially the children who require expensive special services and the children who are likely to post low test scores.

Betsy DeVos demonstrates an amazing cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t billionaires like herself. Although people like DeVos may be able to afford any of a wide range of choices, most parents in our country—about 90 percent of them—send their children to the schools the government has provided—schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.

The most serious problem, however, with Betsy DeVos’s libertarian, government-free fantasy is that she seems unaware that government is the institution that protects children’s rights by law and ensures, by law, that education is provided for all children in our country.  High school students in civics class and immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam learn about the three branches of our government—defined in each case in relation to the concept of a government by law. The legislative branch makes the laws; the executive branch administers the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws.

The law is what ensures that public schools serve all those groups of parents that we listed—poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. The law also protects the rights of individuals from injustice committed in or by any of these institutions.

When society is failing to fulfill its obligation according to the law, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  The law provides the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we can all demand better services for vulnerable families who have been left out.  Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954.  In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

Justice is never about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as together they form a society. Justice also involves the balance of power among the institutions that societies create. In the tweet Betsy DeVos quoted in her speech, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) described the need to protect our system of education. The AFT recognizes the need to protect institutional and structural justice, not merely the choices of individuals. Why?  History tells us that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget other people’s children.

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)

Last year, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a book that covers the lesson too many Americans have forgotten from their civics classes about the role of government.  Here is how they begin: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans 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.” (American Amnesia, p. 1).

Hacker and Pierson continue, quoting James Madison: “There never was a Government without force. What is the meaning of government?  An institution to make people do their duty.  A Government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of Government, or rather no Government at all.”  (American Amnesia, pp. 1-2)

And these political scientists conclude: “We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.’  At a time when we face serious challenges that can be addressed only through a stronger, more effective government—a strained middle class, a weakened system for generating life-improving innovation, a dangerously warming planet—we ignore what both our history and basic economic theory suggest: We need a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government rather than the jealous rivalry that so many misperceive—and in that misperception, help foster.  Above all, we need a government strong and capable enough to rise above narrow private interests and carry out long-term courses of action on behalf of broader concerns.” American Amnesia, p. 2, emphasis in the original)

It may not be possible to silence Betsy DeVos and her long rant against the government system she is supposed to be administering.  At the very least, however, those of us who prize America’s institution of public education must just as insistently reject her foolishness.