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.”

How Serious Is The Threat of School Privatization under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos?

Over the past couple of decades school privatization has been normalized.

Here is Carol Burris, chair of the Network for Public Education: “The drive to privatize the public education system under the guise of ‘choice’ is well underway—and can be expected to pick up steam when Donald Trump becomes president.  He chose as his education secretary a Michigan billionaire named Betsy DeVos… who has said the public education system is a ‘dead end.’…. (P)ublic education has been the frog in the pot of water, as school privatizers and ‘education reformers’ have slowly turned up the heat.  Over 1 million students receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school , and close to 3 million attend charter schools.  Whether the adjective ‘public’ is in front of the word ‘charter’ or not, charters are at the forefront of school privatization.”  Of course 50 million children and adolescents across America are enrolled in traditional public schools, but that is harder to remember in the avalanche of rhetoric.

Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network reflects further on the way promoters of privatization have used language to cloud our thinking: “Education marketers have rebranded ‘public schools’ to mean any institution that gets tax dollars.  And the phrase ‘doing what’s best for kids’ has been turned into an empty PR slogan.  The operative political term of the day is ‘what parents choose for their children,’ which has become a de facto argument to justify any kind of education option—even if parents are being suckered into bad choices or are being forced into situations where high quality education options are practically unobtainable.”

David Dayen, writing for The NATION, warns that we are likely to see a rapid increase in privatization with Donald Trump’s administration: “Trump’s advisors all fall in a comfortably snug ideological range, with a dedication to doctrinaire conservative economic beliefs about tax cuts and deregulation.  And another area of consensus sticks out: the idea that government should outsource public functions to private industry.  In the Public Interest, a research organization monitoring privatization, has complied a list of 32 different members of the Trump transition team or formal nominees for top agencies who have either close ties to privatization groups, or demonstrated support for the philosophy.”

Despite that school privatization was not a primary theme of Trump’s political campaign—nothing like the wall along the Mexican border or the rebirth of coal mining or ‘Lock her up!’—some of the nation’s strongest supporters of privatizing pubic education are at the heart of the new administration.

For example: Mike Pence.

As Indiana’s governor, Pence rapidly expanded the statewide school voucher program originally passed in 2011 under his predecessor, Governor Mitch Daniels.  The original Indiana voucher program, as reported by Emma Brown of the Washington Post, was capped “at 7,500 students in the first year” and restricted “to children who had attended public schools for at least a year… Two years later, Pence entered the governor’s office with a pledge to extend vouchers to more children.”

Brown quotes Pence, from his inaugural address in 2013: “There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach.”

Describing the rapid expansion of vouchers that Pence signed into law, Brown continues: “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients.  The income cutoff was raised, and more middle class families became eligible.  When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers, and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly. By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system… The state Education Department says taxpayers are taking on $53 million in tuition costs that they were not bearing before….”

Then there is Betsy DeVos herself and her record of a lifetime of working with the nation’s preeminent privatizers.  Caitlin Emma titled her piece for POLITICO on Monday, Jeb Bush’s Consolation Prize.  Emma reminds us of Jeb’s myriad school privatization projects in Florida and also across the states after he organized Chiefs for Change, the network of far-right state superintendents of public instruction.  One member of Chiefs for Change, Hanna Skandera of New Mexico, is currently under consideration as education deputy secretary or undersecretary—right under Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education.

Emma’s article is a Cliffs Notes summary of Jeb’s record and his personal collaboration with Betsy DeVos: “If DeVos is confirmed by the Senate as most expect, Bush could see his views on education—repeatedly ridiculed on the campaign trail by Donald Trump—given new life as she turns their shared vision into national policy.  For years, the former Florida governor and DeVos worked side-by-side to push ‘school choice’ policies that steer taxpayer funding to charter and private schools—which critics blame for undermining traditional public schools.  They served together on the board of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, to which DeVos and her husband gave large contributions.  The DeVoses also contributed to Bush’s presidential campaign.”

Emma connects Bush and DeVos in the development of Trump’s idea for a $20 billion federal block grant to states as an incentive to expand school choice through vouchers and charters: “One of Trump’s biggest education promises—a proposed $20 billion block grant promoting charter and private schools—was developed with input from DeVos’s D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children…  Now the programs the two crafted together in Florida and other states are likely to serve as models for federal policymaking—indeed, they have already influenced Trump’s statements on the campaign trail… Bush co-founded Florida’s first charter school in 1996. In 1999, during Bush’s first year as governor, Florida became the first state to launch a statewide voucher program.”

Commenting on Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, Bush said: “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s policy-wonk writers on federal education legislation, published a piece in late December about another privatization scheme Trump’s administration could perhaps more easily push through Congress if expanding vouchers and charters were to face legislative roadblocks: “Generally speaking, tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice. Right now, according to EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation) 17  states provide some form of tax-credit scholarships for students. In 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind, introduced the Educational Opportunities Act, which would grant a tax credit of up to $4,500 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations that provided donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that award needs-based scholarships to defray students’ cost of private school scholarships. The American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group chaired by DeVos until recently, applauded the legislation when Rubio and Rokita introduced it.”

Ujifusa explains the wonky reason tax credits would be an easier way for the Trump administration to privatize education: “To pass it, lawmakers could use a process called budget reconciliation that would only need a majority of votes in the GOP-controlled Senate to get approval.  That would mean such a program would be immune from a possible filibuster led by Democrats opposed to using the federal tax code to support school choice.  By contrast, budget reconciliation could not be used to make federal Title I money ‘portable’ to private schools.”

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled its hearing on the Betsy DeVos nomination Wednesday, January 11, 2017.  This post is intended to fill in some background on Ms. DeVos as you prepare to call your Senators.  One thing is very clear. Betsy DeVos and her collaborators to undermine public schools by expanding privatization have been around for a long time. They have been working together. They know what they are doing.

VP Nominee Mike Pence Brags He Supported ALEC “Before It Was Cool”

After the Republican convention in Cleveland, Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States, went home to Indiana, where he is governor, and made a speech to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Here is a description from James Briggs, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star: “First, Gov. Mike Pence returned home to Indiana from the national campaign trail. Then, he came home to his base. Pence on Friday addressed a room full of kindred spirits at the American Legislative Exchange Council. The free-market policy group concluded its three-day annual meeting at the JS Marriott in Downtown Indianapolis.  ‘You are the model for Washington, D.C., after this election,’ Pence told the room….”

Pence’s description of ALEC as a model ought to terrify anyone who knows anything about the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a sort of dating service that pairs member corporate lobbyists with member state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.

Here is how New York’s Common Cause describes ALEC in a recent report: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country….”  ALEC’s effort to undermine government and promote privatization through “model” laws that can be adopted by any state legislature is underwritten by corporations along with some of our nation’s wealthiest political investors, and it pairs state legislators with the corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design.

Briggs of the Indiana Star continues: “Pence’s speech… was light on references to Trump and heavy on ALEC’s bread and butter: state government.  ALEC is an influential policy group that drafts model legislation for statehouses across the country.  Pence joked that he was ‘for ALEC before it was cool.'”  Briggs quotes Pence “telling ALEC members he came to ‘say thank you for the work all of you have done in state legislatures.’ He urged those in attendance to use the November election to make the federal government reflect politically conservative states such as Indiana.”

Writing for PR Watch, Jessica Mason and Lisa Graves describe Pence’s record of pushing ALEC’s priorities in Indiana: “As Governor, Pence appointed an ALEC staffer to his cabinet, and pushed parts of the ALEC agenda into law, such as anti-worker bills like repealing the prevailing wage and privatizing public schools in various ways.  He even sent a letter to state legislators urging them to join ALEC, which is widely described as a corporate bill mill. ALEC is funded by Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, huge global tobacco and drug companies, and other corporations that pay a premium to access ALEC lawmakers.”

The PR Watch report explains: “School privatization proponents have slowly been dropping the pretense that the ‘school choice’ movement is about helping underprivileged children.”  Last week’s convention featured a workshop on education titled: ‘The Path to Universal Choice: From Theory to Passage to Implementation.”  And at ALEC’s annual meeting last week, delegates considered new model bills that can be disseminated across the states to make it harder to close poor performing charter schools: “Two new bills being considered by what ALEC now dubs its ‘Education and Workforce Development Task Force’ could help poorly performing charters stay open without having to improve. Under the Assessment Choice Act, instead of using a uniform assessment for students statewide, charters’ authorizers would take their pick from a ‘menu’ of tests, unlike traditional public schools. If propping up test scores isn’t enough to save a charter from closure, the ‘Student and Family Fair Notice and Impact Statement Act’ promises to add new hurdles. Before closing or restructuring a charter school, this act would not just require that families be notified. It would also create a public hearing process in which parents, teachers, and ‘experts’ could give testimony about the school, and the charter board would be allowed to suggest a response plan. In case it wasn’t obvious that the bill is meant to keep the charter in operation, the drafter of that model bill added: ‘[drafting note: it should be clear the school can present an alternative for supporters of the school to rally around.]'”

Members of the Indiana State Teachers Association rallied during Pence’s address to protest the governor’s long affiliation with ALEC and his decision to address ALEC’s annual convention.  Think Progress reporter, Casey Quinlan notes that under Pence and his predecessor as governor, Mitch Daniels, ALEC has increased its legislative membership in Indiana by 40 percent.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is currently granted 501(c)3 educational nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service.  We all need to join Common Cause and others who have been working to press the IRS to treat ALEC as what it really is: a lobbying organization.