School Vouchers are One of the Ways Privatization Is Undermining Our Society

Private school tuition vouchers are a big deal in Ohio right now. 100 school districts filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the rapidly growing statewide EdChoice Voucher Program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax dollars from the public schools which desperately need the money for educating the state’s 1.8 million public school students and because the voucher program has accelerated racial segregation.

The expansion of school vouchers always loomed as former U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s primary cause. Congress managed to avoid passing her proposed federal $5 billion tuition tax credit Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program despite that every year for four years she tried to insert this program into the federal education budget. But today many of the state legislatures are growing voucher programs or starting new voucher initiatives.

Here in Ohio, a professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Stitzlein explained last week why she thinks giving parents marketplace choices about their children’s schooling is dangerous for the rest of us: “Voucher programs hand over decision-making power solely to guardians of school-aged children, who compose less than a quarter of American adults. These guardians then independently decide where to spend a taxpayer-funded voucher. Often, they look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars… And because private schools are not required to accept all students or to provide equitable services to all children, communities lose the ability to demand fair educational opportunities without discrimination toward any child.”

The continuing momentum across the state legislatures for private school tuition vouchers is only one aspect of the movement toward privatization of public life. In a new book, The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian examine school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools as merely one strand of a movement that has also included attempts to privatize healthcare, water, transportation, environmental policy, the criminal justice system, Social Security, public libraries, and higher education. Cohen and Mikaelian consider the following questions regarding how growing privatization threatens our democracy .

Why should citizens be paying closer attention to growing privatization? “Understanding privatization means understanding that it is first and foremost a political strategy… (B)ut it has also become a grab for billions of dollars in contracts and fees. In the years since it sprang from the mind of Milton Friedman as a way to undercut government ‘monopoly,’ it has also become a way for profiteers to tap into the $7 trillion of public revenue… spent by local, state, and federal government agencies each year and carve out a piece (sometimes a very big piece) for themselves.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 21).

What is the definition of ‘privatization’?  “Many define privatization as simply the outsourcing of a good or a service to a private company, but it is much more than that… Privatization is the transfer of control over public goods to private hands. Sometimes this happens during procurement—the outsourcing of public services to a private company. In other cases it’s due to austerity—reducing public funding of a vital public good and letting private options take over. Or it can happen through deregulation—when we eliminate or fail to enforce public control…. In all these ways, privatization is a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 4-5)

What are public goods and who gets to define them?  “Most economics textbooks, and many economists, define public goods in pretty strict terms: they are things that are nonexcludable (meaning that it’s either impossible or impractical to prevent people from using them) and nonrivalrous (meaning that one person using them does not take away from another person’s use).”  Cohen and Mikaelian, however, believe that definition is incomplete: “In a democratic society public goods should not be defined by the market. They should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… Clearly, it is possible to exclude some people from schools… But we decided long ago that this would not happen at K-12 public schools.  We could make all our roads exclusive, but we decided that it would be better for both the economy and each of us individually if the public controlled most roads, paid for them, and permitted access.” (The Privatization of Everything,  pp. 5-6)

Who is responsible for protecting the public?  “In a democracy, it is the public’s job—not the market’s—to decide what to cede to the private sphere… In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine)…. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 7)

How can a responsible public protect public goods?  “That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. Public control is exercised in different ways; the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods….  What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them…. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 8)

What is the difference between citizens and consumers?  “We are both citizens and consumers, but privatization encourages us to approach public goods merely as a shopper while convincing us to forget that fellow citizens need that public good too…  As consumers, our only responsibility is to ourselves. As consumers, we promote exclusions, but at the same time we are excluded. We do not have power over what is given to us; we have no right to expect a voice in what choices we have. Private corporations decide for us… (F)or things that we value both for ourselves and for the common good—clean water, education, public health, safe roads and bridges—let’s approach these as citizens of a democracy, as co-creators of public goods… as part of something larger and not merely as isolated individuals, and as a people defined by our responsibilities rather than merely by our desires.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 14)

What is the consequence of failing to protect the public from rampant privatization?  “Privatization is not just about money or about who provides what service; privatization is about values, about whether we are committed to promoting the general welfare as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution…. Privatization… facilitates the upward transfer of wealth, exacerbates inequality, creates powerful interests, separates us from each other, and segregates us by race and class… Reclaiming public goods… is about who we are and what we believe.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 17-18)

Cohen and Mikaelian conclude: “Our definition of public good boils down to a few simple ideas. Public goods are things we all benefit from even if we don’t personally use them, such as education, public transportation, the safety net, and the justice system. They are the things that are essential for life, including water and clean air. They are things that can make such broad and fundamental improvements to our quality of life that no one should be excluded… They are the things that recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence and make us a healthier, fairer, more compassionate and more democratic nation.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 284)

Yesterday morning, when I thought this post was complete, I happened upon this provocative twitter thread from Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider considers several other ways the privatization of education undermines the public good:

“The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is, schools should respond to what their customers want. I have a few major concerns about this.

  • “First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill. Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align with the public good.
  • “Second… Consider how many people in a typical business ‘make something, vs. how many play supporting roles.  Almost everyone in a school is on the ‘making’ side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean organizations.
  • “Third schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback. but we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
  • “Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution. If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school, who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
  • “(T)here’s also the principal-agent problem…. In schools, the ‘customer’ is… who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
  • “(I)f we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
  • “If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity. That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer. That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
  • “Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation. There are very few places left in our society where we come together around our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers. If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?”

Tuition Tax Credits—One Type of School Vouchers—Press Coverage and NPE’s Excellent Toolkit

Washington Post reporter Emma Brown describes Florida’s tuition tax credit program, what Brown and many others believe is the model Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration will try to use for a national program to privatize public education.

Brown describes the essential elements of this program: “Florida’s program, created in 2001 with the full-throated support of then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), was one of the first to harness corporate tax credits to help low-income families pay school tuition.  Sixteen other states have enacted variations on the idea. Using tax credits to fund the scholarships, instead of direct payments from public treasuries, enabled lawmakers to work around state bans on use of public funds to support religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tax-credit programs are constitutional. Taking the idea to the federal level is one of the clearest ways Trump could make good on his promise to supercharge private-school choice across the country. If embedded in a larger tax bill that the GOP-held Congress passes via the budget reconciliation process, it would be protected from a Senate filibuster and therefore would require only 51 votes instead of the 60 usually required to pass legislation… In Florida’s tax-credit program, businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar credit when they donate to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. A corporation that owes $50,000 in Florida taxes, for example, could donate $50,000 and pay nothing to the state. The nonprofit then dispenses money to students for tuition at participating private schools…. Private schools do not need to be accredited to participate.” (According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida has capped the amount of tax dollars that can be diverted:  “A corporation can apply for a credit worth up to 75 percent of its total income tax liability. As a whole, the state awards a maximum of $140 million (FY 2011) in scholarship tax credits.”)

Brown adds: “But there is scant evidence that these students fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And there is a perennial debate about whether the state should support private schools that are mostly religious, do not require teachers to hold credentials and are not required to meet minimal performance standards.”

The Network for Public Education’s  fine new toolkit, School Privatization Explained, contains two informative and very readable fact sheets about tuition tax credits. I urge you to read and find a way to use and distribute the information in NPE’s new toolkit. These basic resources help sort out the complex issues about various kinds of school vouchers and their constitutionality.

The fact sheet, Do Education Tax Credit Scholarships Provide Opportunity?, busts some of the myths being promoted by advocates of school privatization: “Education tax credit programs don’t enable families to choose better schools… The amounts of money paid out to families from these programs rarely cover the full cost of private school tuition. Poor families can’t make up the difference, especially to high quality private schools, so substandard privates are being subsidized… Both private and religion-based schools that can receive tax credit money often discriminate on the basis of religion, gender preference, disciplinary history or ability level.  Education tax credit programs don’t provide escape routes from ‘failing’ public schools. Students who use the programs often transfer out of better performing schools, and those students don’t perform any better academically than how they performed before their transfer.”

In this fact sheet, NPE explores examples of the tax credit programs in a number of states—Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida—and then declares: “Many parents receiving tax credit scholarships can already afford private school and should pay their own way. Private schools on average do not perform better academically than public schools… Redirecting taxpayer money from public education to private schools does little to increase education opportunities, especially for low income families.”

The second of NPE’s fact sheets about tuition tax credits addresses this question: Are Tax Credit Scholarships a Voucher by a Different Name?  According to NPE the best way to think about tax credit vouchers is as a money-laundering scheme to get around the state Blaine Amendments (see here) that prohibit the direct expenditure of tax dollars for sectarian education: “Education tax credit scholarship programs are a money laundering scheme. Whereas vouchers distribute public education funds directly to parents, education tax credit programs use a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO)—that is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to the private school industry… The money from the STO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition….”

Tax credit programs are sometimes promoted as a money-saving enterprise.  NPE responds: “Education tax credit scholarship programs don’t save money. They drain financial resources from public schools while providing tax benefits to wealthy businesses and individuals… Education tax credit scholarship programs are a give-away to the rich. High-income taxpayers are the main beneficiaries of the programs. They not only get their donations back as a tax credit; they also can take a federal charitable tax deduction on top of that.” Again, the fact sheet presents examples from a number of states, this time Georgia, Arizona, and Alabama.

Here in a recent USA Today commentary is Joshua Starr, former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and now CEO of PDK International, a professional society for educators: “Betsy DeVos, our new Secretary of Education, claims that she wants the federal government to become more responsive to the will of the American People… Fair enough. So when it comes to pubic education, what do the American people want?  Since 1969, PDK International has conducted an annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools… Since 1993, we have asked Americans 20 times whether they support allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense, and every time a majority has said ‘No.’ … (O)ur data have shown consistently over many years that a majority of Americans favor spending more money on the public schools, especially on their local schools (which people tend to rate much more highly than the public schools in general.).  A majority of people even say that they would be willing to pay higher taxes as long as the money goes directly to education.”

Here is Starr’s judgement on Betsy DeVos: “Secretary DeVos may have her reasons for wanting to… ramp up funding for her preferred forms of school choice. But let’s be honest: Those reasons are grounded in ideology, not in practical experience (she has none) or evidence (she cannot cite any).

Why People Who Know REALLY Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

You no doubt know that Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, has devoted her fortune and her advocacy to promoting school privatization through expansion of vouchers and unregulated charters. DeVos believes that if parents are given a choice and enough money to choose, they’ll improve the product by voting with their feet. Her theory, if not the reality, is that bad schools will then close and children will be better served. As the Senate considers her confirmation, people who know a lot about public education are warning Senators to oppose her.  Here are highlights of four articles—all by experts—all from different points of view.  Please do follow the links and read the articles themselves.  They are all short.

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Brett McNeil, whose The High School Where Our Kids Belong appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times, describes himself as someone who shifted careers, seeking teaching mid-career, working in a Chicago public high school and a Chicago charter high school. Although he has now left teaching for work in journalism, he brings the seldom-heard perspective of a teacher from inside two contrasting high schools, and he explains: “(W)ith charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.”  He describes the two schools in which he taught: “Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority—one African American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches….”  McNeil contrasts the facilities, programs, and extras at the two schools. The public school has a library with librarians, a large gym and gym classes and a performing arts center, while the charter lacks a library, librarians, gym classes and performing arts. The public high school offers a range of enrichments—a video production lab; a 25-yard swimming pool and swim team; a band room, band classes and marching band; art classes; drama classes and a drama club; National Honors Society; an International Baccalaureate curriculum; an auto shop; a student council; an improv club; and a literary journal.  He describes the charter as occupying a “decommissioned” elementary school, and he explains that the facility still feels like a grade school.

McNeil’ conclusion captures a reality that would matter to a great many adolescents and their parents: “The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words ‘high school.’ It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breath of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.”

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Sarah Carr is a journalist, editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Hope Against Hope, a book about the transformation of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Even Carr, who describes herself as a supporter of school choice, worries about DeVos based on Carr’s experience covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002-2007.  In  her recent piece at Slate, Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work, Carr explains that part of her assignment was reporting on the evolution of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee: “Milwaukee’s program historically targeted low-income families, allowing them to use state-funded tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools and, as of 1998 religious ones. When I started reporting in Milwaukee, potential voucher school operators basically needed only a building occupancy permit—and a group of willing families with kids to open a school and rake in hundreds of thousands of public dollars. Not surprisingly, the schools’ quality ran the gamut: Some were run by accomplished, talented, and dedicated educators; others by criminals with no background in education.”  Carr explains that many parents continued to choose schools with poor academic records.

Carr declares: “DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America.”  Wisconsin has, “over the past 10 years…  started to require much more of voucher school operators…. Now schools in Milwaukee must survive an accreditation process, meet stricter hiring and financial standards, and administer the same state standardized tests as public schools.” She concludes: “The Milwaukee story, combined with substantial research showing that charter schools tend to perform better in states with rigorous vetting of charter operators, helped usher in a new phase of ‘school choice’ in many communities: one in which government agencies or designees play a more aggressive role in determining what constitutes quality education—and what does not.”

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Diane Ravitch and John Jackson both bring reservations about the nomination of Betsy Devos based on their experience working in the U.S. Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch is an academic historian of education, and someone who, before a radical transformation based on the evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind, worked as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. (In her 2010 book, Ravitch formally rejected her previous support for what is now called “corporate school reform.”) This week Ravitch addressed a public letter to now Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, a promoter of school privatization, and currently the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which is considering the DeVos nomination.

In her Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander about Betsy DeVos, Ravitch addresses Senator Alexander as an old friend.  She worries about what she heard from Betsy DeVos in the HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing: “When asked direct questions about important federal issues… (DeVos) was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional… She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues… I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit… She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy.  It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all.  This is not ‘reform.’  This is backsliding.  This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress toward public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English.  We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it.  School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.”

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Dr. John H. Jackson, President and C.E.O. of the Schott Foundation for Public Education served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.  Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have been leaders in promoting justice in the public schools by advocating for closing the resource opportunity gaps that drive the racial and economic achievement gaps in test scores.  In Our Next Secretary of Education Should Know Education, Jackson affirms the right of “a freely elected president… (to) appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate” cabinet officials.  However, he observes that in her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos demonstrated that she, “lacks even the most basic knowledge and capabilities required for the responsibility of U.S. Secretary of Education… In fact, the hearing laid bare astonishing deficits in DeVos’s understanding of the obligations and authority of the Department of Education… Her inability to assemble the team and dedicate the time necessary to adequately prepare for one of the most predictable parts of the process and the job—the Senate Confirmation Hearing—should be alarming and offensive to Senate members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson, leader of a foundation, criticizes DeVos as a philanthropist: “DeVos is a well-heeled philanthropist who has championed the expansion of charter schools, school vouchers, and tuition tax credit programs… Yet possessing millions of dollars does not automatically make a philanthropist — or a philanthropic organization — more prepared or more credible.  As a funder dedicated to ensuring that all students in our public education system have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, the Schott Foundation’s thought leadership has been sharpened through 25 years of experience working with and learning from parents, students, and educators in local communities, districts and public schools across the nation.  It’s clear that Mrs. DeVos has little in the way of federal education policy experience as she was rarely able to provide substantive answers to legitimate questions about her ideas and plans.  DeVos currently has no experience serving in public schools as an educator, administrator, board member or superintendent.  She has no earned degree in education.  She was neither a student of a public school nor the parent of one.  Furthermore, the results of her work championing school choice programs and privatization efforts in her home state of Michigan have been dismal.”

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While on Monday, the Democratic Senators in the HELP Committee requested an additional opportunity to question Ms. DeVos about her qualifications and her potential conflicts of interest, the Committee’s chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, has denied the request.  The committee members will vote on the DeVos nomination next Tuesday, January 31 at 10 AM. After the committee vote, the nomination will very likely move to the Senate floor.  Please continue to call your U.S. Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.