School Privatization in the Age of Betsy DeVos: Where Are We in Mid-May?

In a new analysis at Jacobin Magazine, Jennifer Berkshire reports that Betsy DeVos addressed a convention of tech investors and edupreneurs by pushing vouchers as the best form of creative disruption: “Apple, Uber, and Airbnb have worked their disruptive magic on one industry after another. Why aren’t our public schools being similarly disrupted?… But if the nation’s schools are the equivalent of a kitchen-wall rotary phone or the cab that never comes, DeVos was eager to let the audience know that a quick fix is at hand: school choice. The way to disrupt our educational malaise once and for all is to shift the way we think about education to focus ‘on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.’  Even the best schools won’t be the right ‘fit’ for all kids, DeVos noted. ‘The simple fact is that if a school is not meeting a child’s unique needs, then that school is failing that child.'”

DeVos’s attempt at sleek packaging of her long and old-fashioned support for the vouchers that have kept religious schools afloat and her endorsements of parents’ right to homeschool their children amuses me. DeVos’s one big idea—giving parents a choice—is definitely conservative, but it’s hard to call vouchers particularly creative or disruptive.  They have been around for quite a while now.

Here in Ohio, where I live, we’ve had private school vouchers for two decades. Tax dollars certainly flow out of the budgets of the state as well as the budgets of the local public school districts to religious schools. In fact, 97 percent of all Ohio voucher dollars pay tuition at religious schools, with much of the money supporting children who began using a voucher in Kindergarten and have kept on attending parochial school—students who whose parents always intended to send them to a religious school and are delighted that tax dollars are helping them pay the tuition. In Ohio, vouchers have been debilitating for public school districts but not particularly disruptive.

Here is a summary of existing school privatization programs, as compiled by the website The 74: “Fourteen states and the District of Columbia provide vouchers that give private schools state funding to pay tuition for students….Seventeen states, including Indiana and Florida, have tax credit scholarship programs….Eight states give tax credits or deductions to parents who send their kids to private schools…. Indiana and Louisiana allow families to deduct tuition on their taxes, while Illinois and Iowa let parents claim a tax credit for their children’s private school tuition…. In five states, including Arizona and Mississippi, education savings accounts let parents choose how to spend the state’s per-pupil allotment for their child’s education — whether it’s putting them in private school or paying for tutoring.” Last year Nevada established an education savings account program which would have allowed all 450,000 of Nevada’s students to carry their public school funding to a private school or use it for home schooling. The bill’s funding mechanism was found unconstitutional, but supporters are looking for a way to resurrect the program.

But this year with DeVos as their cheerleader, far right legislators across the states have been aggressively promoting school privatization with bills for new vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts or bills to expand existing privatization schemes.  As usual, legislators are being assisted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate and think tank lobbyists to write model bills that can be adapted to any state and introduced across the statehouses by ALEC members.

The Network for Public Education has made available short explanations of all three school privatization schemes: vouchers, tutition tax credits here and here, and education savings accounts.

So what has 2017 brought us so far in passage of bills to expand privatization?

Washington D.C. Vouchers were reauthorized (through 2019) by Congress  at the end of April as part of the 2017 budget agreement. Reauthorization of D.C. Vouchers has been one of the priorities of President Trump and Betsy DeVos.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown describing the program: “The D.C. program serves about 1,100 students, giving them up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school. Participating private schools must be accredited by 2021 but otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and demonstrating compliance with health and safety laws.”  Congress folded the D.C. voucher extension into the 2017 budget agreement despite a negative evaluation of the program just released by a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education itself. Emma Brown summarizes the evaluation: “D.C. students who used vouchers had significantly lower math scores a year after joining the program, on average, than students who applied for a voucher through a citywide lottery but did not receive one.  For voucher students in kindergarten through fifth grade, reading scores were also significantly lower… For voucher recipients coming from a low-performing public school—the population that the voucher program primarily aims to reach—attending a private school had no effect on achievement.  But for voucher recipients coming from higher-performing public schools, the negative effect was particularly large.”

Arizona exploded the number of students eligible for what had been a small Education Savings Accounts program. Governor Doug Ducey signed the education savings account program expansion into law early in April. Now every single child in the state will be eligible, though at this time there are enrollment caps—to be expanded gradually over time— on how many students the state will underwrite each year. ESAs are basically an experiment in totally portable school funding.  David Sciarra of the Education Law Center summarizes the meaning of Arizona’s new law: “Cheered on by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed legislation expanding vouchers again, this time making all 1.1 million public school students eligible.  To pass the bill, proponents accepted a cap of 5,500 new students per year and 30,000 students over the next five years. The cost to taxpayers and the public schools could quickly swell to over $100 million or more.  But make no mistake: Voucher proponents are already aiming to lift the caps and throw the program open to everyone…. (M)ost Arizona voucher recipients are from affluent neighborhoods…. And public school funding in Arizona… is among the lowest and most inadequate in the country.”

Currently legislatures across the country are considering bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts, Most of the spring legislative sessions have not yet concluded.  Neither have state budget bills—into which all sorts of programs can be quietly slipped—been passed.  We’ll take another look at the end of June as the budget deadline passes and legislators go home for summer recess.  As of Mid-May, however, the news is not all bad: a number of states have rejected bids to expand school privatization.

It is worth noting some principles at the end of this summary. Schemes like vouchers and tax credits and education savings accounts privilege the individual wishes of the family over the state’s protection the rights of all. It is again worth considering the wisdom of the late Benjamin Barber:

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes.” (Consumed, p. 143)  “The consumer’s republic is quite simply an oxymoron. Consumers cannot be sovereign, only citizens can.  Public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices… Asking what “I want’ and asking what ‘we as a community to which I belong need’ are two very different questions, though neither is altruistic and both involve ‘my’ interests: the first is ideally answered by the market; the second must be answered by democratic politics. When the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is perverted and the character of our commonwealth undermined. Moreover, my sense of self—me as a moral being embedded in a free community—is lost.” (Consumed, p. 126)