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?

Ohio Voucher Promoters Mislead: EdChoice Vouchers Eat Up Local Dollars and Ruin District Budgets

On Tuesday evening,  the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children—the group affiliated through the years with Betsy DeVos—sponsored a meeting at my local public library, where the speaker, representing School Choice Ohio, promoted Ohio’s taxpayer-funded, EdChoice school vouchers.

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are available to students living in the attendance zones of what are considered “failing” schools.  Ohio is emerging from a three year “safe harbor” period following a change in the high stakes test by which Ohio judges school quality. Next fall, the number of EdChoice voucher-eligible, so called “failing” schools will double—to 475 across the state—reports Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The list of local public schools whose students will be able to qualify for the vouchers next fall is nearly 12 pages long and includes a mass of schools in every big city and a growing number of the state’s inner-ring suburbs. (Cleveland schools do not appear on this list, because the state maintains a separate voucher program in Cleveland.)

The meeting on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Heights Main Library offered coffee and donuts along with several packets about the voucher program and information for prospective voucher parents about School Choice Ohio’s counseling services to help parents qualify for a voucher.  Alyson Miles was Tuesday’s primary speaker.  She is not currently listed on the staff of School Choice Ohio but appears instead as the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Ohio office of the American Federation for Children.  She is also, according to the website of School Choice Ohio, one of the three members of  School Choice Ohio’s board of directors.  The other board members are Rabbi Yitz Frank, the Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America in Cleveland Ohio, and Ann Riddle, Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, located in Sylvania, Ohio—a suburb of Toledo.

In Ohio, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students must have been enrolled previously in a public school unless they are entering Kindergarten. Once a Kindergartner receives a voucher, the student can keep it for twelve years of schooling as long as he or she reapplies every year.

Tuesday’s speaker, Alyson Miles emphasized an odd quirk of Ohio’s law: Students moving to Ohio—families new to the state—can qualify for an EdChoice Voucher without ever having been enrolled in an Ohio public school as long as they move to the attendance zone of one of the qualifying “failing” schools.

Miles provided mistaken information to those in attendance on Tuesday night in one respect.  She repeatedly insisted that vouchers in Ohio are entirely made up of state dollars allocated by the Legislature for that specific purpose.  After she was questioned, Miles repeatedly explained that the vouchers do not drain locally voted school levy dollars out of any school district’s budget.

Miles is wrong.   In many Ohio school districts, an EdChoice voucher—worth $4,650 per K-8 student and $6,000 per high school student—is more than the amount of state per-pupil funding allocated to the school district by the state funding formula. School districts must make up the difference out of locally voted levy dollars.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.” (Emphasis is mine.)

The amount of dollars carried away from a local school district can be substantial—especially as Kindergarten classes matriculate through the grades.  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, the amount lost to the public schools has been growing by about a million dollars a year—from $1,237,990 in FY16 to $2,256,017 in FY17 to $3,214,454 in FY 18.

Recently in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained: “Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Ohio’s theft of money for vouchers and charters right out of school district budgets punishes the state’s most vulnerable school districts and leaves wealthy exurban districts largely untouched.

Dale Russakoff Describes Arizona Cannibalizing its Public Schools

It can be hard to notice just how sick a person—or a valued institution—is becoming. The patient gets weaker, but we deny that we’re watching the progress of a fatal disease until it may be too late. Even though teachers in Arizona had observed their colleagues leaving for nearby states, the size of their classes ballooning, and the building conditions and equipment deteriorating, many didn’t realize they could to stop the collapse until one day last spring when they watched colleagues in West Virginia and Oklahoma standing up. Then they realized they had to do something. That is the process Dale Russakoff describes in an extraordinarily well researched and well written article that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine.

Russakoff sets her Arizona story against the nationwide policy backdrop many people struggle to conceptualize: “Public education is a $650 billion national enterprise, comparable to the U.S. defense budget, except that the federal government pays only 8.5 percent of the cost.  States and local school districts split the rest in varying proportions but each state finances it differently. Texas and Louisiana tap plentiful oil and gas revenues; Northeastern states like Massachusetts and New Jersey rely on high income and property taxes.  Arizona, which hasn’t raised income taxes in more than 25 years, counts more on sales taxes and other revenues generated by a growing economy.  However they pay for it, K-12 schooling is the biggest single expenditure for all states, accounting for 36 percent of general-fund budgets on average. The Great Recession devastated education funding in every region of the country.  With tax revenues plummeting, legislators and governors desperate to slash spending turned inexorably to public schools… In half the states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher pay adjusted for inflation was lower in 2016 than in 2000… Few states were hit as hard as Arizona, where the sun, low taxes and wide-open spaces had drawn transplants from around the country, fueling an economy heavily based on real estate development.”

After the housing bubble burst and property values fell, what happened to Arizona’s school funding? “Jan Brewer and the Republican Legislature cut funds that districts relied on to pay teachers, maintain buildings, update curriculum and technology and much more.  Salaries were frozen, funding for all-day kindergarten was eliminated and class sizes climbed year by year as teachers left for higher-paying jobs and principals were forced to combine orphaned classes. By last year, Shannon Connors, a sixth-grade teacher in a high-poverty, 98 percent Latino school in Phoenix, ended up teaching two classes at once—50 students—when a succession of long-term substitutes failed to teach one of the classes effectively.”

Arizona typifies states bent on cutting taxes: “Similar situations had unfolded in every state where teachers walked off the job last spring.  A 2017 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—scenes of the largest teacher walkouts—were among the six state that cut the most aid to local school districts in the last decade.  All are solidly Republican and all have embraced small government and income-tax cuts… In Arizona, state funding per pupil has been below the national average since 1975, falling particularly after the mid 1990s, when lawmakers embarked on an almost unbroken streak of annual cuts in personal and corporate income taxes…. Even in the depths of the recession, Brewer and the Legislature cut corporate income taxes 30 percent—roughly $550 billion a year—in hopes of stimulating the economy, but without success.  Voters approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax hike in a 2010 referendum, with proceeds designated primarily for education, then decisively voted down a permanent extension in 2012. The leader of the 2012 opposition to the sales tax was Doug Ducey, now the governor of Arizona, who was then the state treasurer.”

After teachers walked off the job in May, Ducey promised a 20 percent raise by 2020: “There would be a 10 percent raise this year, and—if future Legislatures approved the funds—5 percent in 2019 and again in 2020. ”  Striking teachers, choosing to call themselves Arizona Education United: “called the raises unsustainable without new taxes.”  Teachers spent the early summer gathering thousands of signatures for an Invest in Ed ballot referendum to raise taxes, but on August 29, the Arizona Supreme Court “invalidated the petitions signed by more than 270,000 Arizonans to put the tax increase on the November ballot.”  Ducey had expanded the size of the state’s supreme court by two members—both appointed by him.  Many accused him of packing the Court and others pointed out that the lawsuit that eventually invalidated the initiative had been brought by the Chamber of Commerce.

Over a year ago, another group of Arizona citizens had noticed something seriously amiss in Arizona: a new initiative to expand school vouchers for privatized education at public school expense. In the summer of 2017, a group of parents and teachers organized as Save Our Schools Arizona and got another ballot initiative certified for the November 2018 ballot. Thanks to their work, voters will have a chance to stop the vast expansion of Arizona’s Education Scholarship Account neo-vouchers, Arizona’s version of what are known as Education Savings Accounts. The ballot initiative challenges the expansion of the program to make each of the 1.1 million school-age children in Arizona eligible—though there would be an initial cap of 5,500 new students accepted into the program each year until after 2022.  Here is how Russakoff describes the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: “Under the voucher program, the state loads an average of $5,700 onto debit cards and issues them to parents to use for private schools, home instruction and other alternatives to public schools.”  Racing to challenge the program, members of SOS Arizona have pointed to other states which immediately lifted enrollment caps—allowing the number of debit-card-carrying-students to grow much sooner than expected, along with a rapidly growing theft from the state’s education budget.

What has driven political leaders in Arizona to collapse the state education budget, cut taxes, and expand school privatization?  Russakoff explains: “In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law issued a report called “Secret Spending in the States,” finding that dark-money political contributions in Arizona increased from about $600,000 in 2010 to more than $10.3 million million in 2014, the year Ducey was elected governor…  In his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Ducey ran on a pledge to cut taxes every year and drive income tax rates in Arizona ‘as close to zero as possible.’  That year, six dark-money groups spent almost $3.5 million supporting him or attacking his opponents… In 2017, the Koch brothers’ political advocacy arm, Americans for Prosperity, named the Arizona voucher-expansion bill its No. 1 education-reform priority in the country.  The American Federation for Children, another bundler of anonymous contributions, funded by the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and focused on expanding school choice through charter schools, vouchers and private school scholarships, made it their top priority in the state… For weeks after leaders of Save Our Schools delivered their petitions to the secretary of state, a phalanx of activists from Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children submitted multiple daily objections to individual signatures…. When the state nonetheless certified more than enough signatures as valid, lawyers representing the Koch network filed legal challenges that went all the way to the State Supreme Court but ultimately failed.”

Russakoff quotes Kelly Berg, a 20-year high school math teacher from Mesa and lifelong Republican, describing her sudden realization last May—as she sat through an all-night deliberation of the State Legislature—of the enormous barrier she and her colleagues face: “We were told to sit down when we stood in agreement…. We were told to remain quiet when applauding when a teacher, who was in tears, was pleading for support for our classes and our students… We were disrespected. We were mocked. We were listened to, but not heard. That’s what radicalized me… As the kids would say, ‘I’m woke.’ ”

Please do read Dale Russakoff’s fine article.  She connects all the pieces of this story—school funding—the role of taxes for buying public services—the impact of tax cuts—the role of far-right money buying politics—the ideology of privatization—and the cost to state budgets and to local school districts when a state undertakes to run a system of private tuition neo-vouchers along with a system of charter schools along with the state’s public school districts all out of one fixed pot of money.

As Russakoff narrates Arizona’s story, she is also providing an account of what has been happening in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Betsy DeVos: The First of Her Two Top Accomplishments This Year

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, has been circulating a New Year’s resolution and asking people endorse it and send it on to their legislators and anyone who has a role in making education policy. The resolution was written by Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association, who adapted it from a statement of the Network for Public Education  (See pp. 47-48 of the NPE Report)

I BELIEVE that public education is the pillar of our democracy. I believe in the common school envisioned by Horace Mann. A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation or learning ability. All may enroll – regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before.

I BELIEVE that taxpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and that funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community. I also believe that taxpayers have the right to examine how schools use tax dollars to educate children.

I BELIEVE that such schools should be accountable to the community they serve, and that community residents have the right and responsibility to elect those who govern the school. Citizens also have the right to insist that schooling be done in a manner that best serves the needs of all children.

In so stating these beliefs, I will do whatever I can to support and promote public education in Ohio.

What seems amazing to me about the project of asking people to endorse and send this resolution to policy makers is that, as we begin 2018, it seems so urgently necessary. When my own children were in elementary school in the late 1980s—a time when I was working hard to help pass school levies in my community and when I first met Bill Phillis, who was then assistant superintendent of public instruction here in Ohio—such a resolution would have seemed more than a little strange. At that time most people merely assumed that one sent one’s children to the public elementary to which they were assigned and the designated middle school and high school.  As a parent in the 1980s and early 1990s, I did not fully appreciate the right to public education; I merely took it for granted.

Betsy DeVos, who has been the U.S. Secretary of Education for a year, did not invent school choice, and certainly school privatization had been underway through vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools before she was appointed.  But her biggest accomplishment during this year has been to use her position to undermine confidence in and support for the public schools her federal department is supposed to oversee.

Betsy DeVos is perhaps our society’s longest and most experienced lobbyist for school choice—her life’s cause and the object of her lavish philanthropy that has supported organizations including the American Federation for Children, EdChoice, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, National School Choice Week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and the Great Lakes Education Project.

While Betsy DeVos has long supported the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which churns out model bills for school privatization, this year DeVos has not succeeded in delivering a federal school voucher program. Neither did she succeed in getting a large tuition tax credit program or education savings account program inserted, as many had feared she would, into the tax overhaul Congress passed in December. There is an expansion of what are called 529 college savings accounts on which the interest is tax-free, enabling people with such accounts to use them to pay not only for college but also for private school tuition, but this will affect only the very wealthy who can afford such accounts.

The deepest damage is what DeVos has inflicted through her relentless story about parental choice. DeVos has doggedly disparaged public schools. Ignoring that, by definition, justice must be systemic, she has attacked our education system as a bureaucracy unresponsive to parents and the needs of  “individual” (her favorite word) children.  That government’s primary role is protecting the rights of vulnerable children through laws and the enforcement of the laws through democratic governance is meaningless to DeVos.  She assumes parents will shop around until they find ideal services for each of their children; if one school doesn’t work, parents ought to merely try another one. DeVos carefully avoids acknowledging that privatized schools can find ways to select the most appealing children and push out the students they don’t want to serve. She obliviously ignores the arithmetic problems when taxes are cut and at the same time the public would find itself paying for charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all out of the old but diminished public school budget.

You may not accept Betsy DeVos’s argument for the glories of school choice. But I suspect that more than last January, you just sigh. On some level haven’t we all just begun to accept that more privatization—along with the lack of protection for vulnerable students and the expense of funding several kinds of education—is just the way things are these days.

Please don’t give up. Read the principles in the resolution from the Network for Public Education via Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association. I suspect that although your fatalism makes you fear that Betsy DeVos’s view is winning the day, you really still agree with the resolution.  Your first and most important action is to consider it and decide whether the principles remain important.  After that, send it to at least one policy maker. Take out the word ” in Ohio” at the end, and send it to Senator Patty Murray, for example, the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  She and her staff would be delighted to know that she has your support as she continues to push back against DeVos and other Republicans who relentlessly promote the nonsense of privatization.

How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.”

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program 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 Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “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 students 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.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

Important Reading on Betsy DeVos

Today’s post is an update—some new tidbits and clarifications about the record of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Jennifer Berkshire on Betsy DeVos 

I encourage you to read Jennifer Berkshire’s fascinating commentary on Betsy DeVos’s role in the mess created by an out-of-control charter sector in Detroit. Berkshire explains how DeVos’ influence and money undermined a bipartisan effort to save the Detroit Public Schools: “It was out of… (a) spirit of hopefulness that the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren emerged back in 2014.  And it was a for real coalition.  AFT was there, but so was the (corporate) reform-minded Excellent Schools Detroit and the city’s pro-charter mayor, along with members of the corporate and civic elite.  People who’d been, if not at war, at deep odds, had finally gotten together around a single, shared point of agreement: if Detroit doesn’t have some way to oversee its schools—both what remains of the district schools and the fast-growing, completely unregulated charter sector—the city can forget about the future.  Bankrolled by a local philanthropy, the Skillman Foundation, the coalition had the wind at its back and the political wherewithal necessary to get a bill through the state senate, even gaining the support of Governor Rick Snyder…. But the feel-good story screeched to a halt last summer thanks to a wall of GOP opposition.  Except that “wall” and “opposition’ make it sound as though there were a whole bunch of people involved in the kneecaping that went down.  There was a single family: Betsy and Dick DeVos.  The bill that ultimately passed, with the DeVos’ blessing and with the aid of the lawmakers they bankroll, did virtually nothing to regulate Detroit’s ‘wild west’ charter school sector, and will likely hasten the demise of the Detroit Public Schools.”

DeVos PAC Still owes Ohio $5.3 Million Fine

The Columbus Dispatch and Politico have now clarified the role of All Children Matter, a PAC that favored school privatization and that was founded in 2003 by Dick and Betsy DeVos and formerly directed by Betsy DeVos—in a huge fine still owed to the Ohio Elections Commission after a 2006 violation. Here is Randy Ludlow for The Dispatch:  “The Ohio Elections Commission unanimously ruled that All Children Matter violated state law by illegally channeling $870,000 in contributions from its Virginia PAC to its then-unregistered Ohio PAC, violating a state law that restricts political action committees to accepting  no more than $10,000 from a single source… David Brennan of Akron, one of Ohio’s top charter-school operators and a top state GOP donor, gave $200,000 to the Virginia PAC before it funneled money to All Children Matter’s Ohio PAC.  Virginia imposed no limit on contributions to PACs.”

Politico describes what happened: “The state (elections) commission told POLITICO that DeVos’ group initially asked Ohio if this sort of spending was permissible.  When the state said no, DeVos’ group did it anyway. ‘I’ve been with the commission since 1996 and I’ve never had anyone else ask for an adivisory opinion and then proceed to not do what the opinion said,’ said Philip Richter, executive director and staff attorney at the Ohio Elections Commission.”

All Children Matter lost when it appealed the decision. Finally Ohio’s attorney general, “went to court in 2012 in a bid to collect the fine, receiving a $5.2 million judgment in 2013 from Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel T. Hogan.”  Hogan also fined All Children Matter’s Virginia PAC $25 a day, retroactive to October 26, 2006. The Dispatch and Politico agree that All Children Matter seems to be fading away and has inadequate assets to pay the fine.  At the end of 2015, the organization had only $275 in assets.  Betsy DeVos was never held personally liable.

Campbell Brown Says Her News Website Will Provide Objective Coverage of Her Good Friend, Betsy DeVos

Caitlin Emma reports for Politico Morning Education that Campbell Brown, the anti-teachers union crusader, will recuse herself from covering her friend Betsy DeVos on The 74, Brown’s website that pretends to be an objective news-reporting site on topics relating to education.

Emma explains: “Brown and DeVos are friends, and Brown sits on the board of DeVos’ school choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children.  (DeVos resigned as chair [of the American Federation of Children] last week after accepting Trump’s Cabinet offer.)  In 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation helped launch The 74 with a two-year grant—the amount of which wasn’t disclosed to Morning Education.”

Since President-elect Trump’s nomination of DeVos, The 74‘s coverage of Betsy DeVos has been largely positive.  Despite a more complex piece by Michael Petrilli, The 74‘s has printed a laudatory 2015 interview with DeVos and Campbell Brown’s own gushing commentary: “Social media attacks aren’t famous for accuracy, but it’s a pity that Betsy DeVos has been so misleadingly caricatured since Donald Trump asked her to serve as secretary of education last week… The suggestion that Betsy’s work with children is ideologically or financially driven would be disputed, I’d guess, by just about everyone who has spent time alongside her during the past 30 years as she founded, helped run and advised education groups and initiatives that have helped improve education across the country — including thousands of teachers and poor families.”  You’ll notice that the sole purpose of DeVos’s education work—privatization— is unmentioned in Brown’s effusive tribute to her friend.

Writing for Education Week, Mark Walsh comments: “The 74, the website founded by former TV journalist Campbell Brown, is in an awkward position when it comes to the site’s identity. Is it an independent education news and opinion site, as Brown, herself a supporter of school choice and teacher tenure reform, has maintained, or is it an electronic pamphleteer for DeVos and her causes?”  Walsh acknowledges that articles about DeVos posted at The 74 have contained disclaimers explaining DeVos’s financial connections and the fact that Campbell Brown serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, but despite the disclaimers, worries remain.

Yesterday Romy Drucker, CEO of The 74, tried to clarify further in a formal statement posted on The 74 website: “Two years ago, in 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation approved a two-year general operating support grant for The 74.  The final disbursement of those funds, in the first quarter of 2016, means that the foundation is an active donor only through the end of this year. Obviously, given Ms. DeVos’s potential role in the federal government, The 74 will not be seeking additional funding for 2017 or beyond.  In addition to The 74 having received support from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, my co-founder and the site’s editor-in-chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the board of the American Federation for Children, which Betsy DeVos previously chaired… Still, given Ms. Brown’s close ties to Ms. DeVos, she is recusing herself from editorial involvement in the coverage of Ms. DeVos and her upcoming confirmation hearing.”

This is, of course, a case of DeVos philanthropy not only underwriting the pro-privatization American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, which has lobbied for unregulated expansion of charter schools, but also granting the seed money for Campbell Brown to launch a news outlet that in subtle and obvious ways favors the very same education ideas that Betsy DeVos’s organizations promote—even while the news site pretends to be objective.