by Félix Pérez
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Voucher advocates like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos like to dress up their proposal in lofty-sounding words such as “freedom” and “choice.” And just as a salesman whose product is perceived negatively, voucher proponents have sought to repackage their idea, sometimes as education saving accounts, education tax credits, personalized learning accounts or opportunity scholarships.
But whatever form they take or name they use, vouchers have the same results.
- They take scarce funding from public schools and divert them to programs with little to no accountability, leading to the loss of millions of dollars to private school operators who fraudulently misrepresented enrollment data, failed to provide safe and academically appropriate learning environments, and otherwise gamed the system for personal profit.
- They do not improve student achievement; evaluations of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have all found no statistically signicant differences in the academic achievement of voucher students compared to public school students, and recent evaluations of programs in Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana revealed that voucher students scored lower than their peers attending public school.
- Vouchers undermine student civil rights, including the rights of students with disabilities. Private school students forfeit due process and other rights guaranteed in public schools. Private schools can and do discriminate by denying admission based on religion, sexual orientation, citizenship status, English language proficiency and disability. Private schools that enroll students with disabilities may decline to provide the services or accommodations guaranteed to such students in public schools (or charge parents extra for them), and may segregate children with special needs from other children. Private schools may also suspend or expel students without due process.
DeVos has pushed and funded campaigns for vouchers for decades, most notably in her home state of Michigan. Her missionary zeal and generous donations when she was chairwoman of the American Federation for Children — a position she held immediately before her confirmation as education secretary — led her to support voucher campaigns in other states as well.
DeVos’s dogged pursuit of public school funding for voucher schools has like-minded allies at the state level, five of who are running for governor in November. They are:
ILLINOIS: BRUCE RAUNER
Rauner, dubbed the “worst Republican governor in America” by a conservative magazine, vetoed another education funding bill in January, demanding that more private schools be given access to public money in the form of education tax credits, or vouchers. The first-term incumbent pushed the state into a two-year budget impasse, during which more than $1 billion was not paid out to school districts. Public colleges and universities statewide announced layoffs, social service agencies shut down, construction projects stalled, and businesses were owed billions for goods and services provided to the state. Rauner is a longtime critic of public schools. Before becoming governor, Rauner told other wealthy activists in a 2011 email that half of Chicago teachers “are virtually illiterate” with a “hostile union” and half the principals are “incompetent.”
MICHIGAN: BILL SCHUETTE
Michigan Attorney General Schuette is a strong supporter of Betsy DeVos’s push for charter schools and school vouchers. According to VoteSmart, an independent voter service website, Schuette supports providing “parents with state-funded vouchers to send their children to any participating school (public, private, religious). Schuette, in a newspaper column praising DeVos for education secretary, took a swipe at public schools, saying, “too often the educational model looks like a horse and buggy system built on corduroy roads.” The DeVos family and DeVos organizations contributed at least $136,000 to Schuette’s campaigns between 2009-2014.
NEVADA: ADAM LAXALT
Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a rising star in national conservative circles, is expected to to revive the state’s education savings accounts program if elected governor. The program uses public school funds to expand the state’s income-based private school vouchers, which divert funding from public schools. He also wants more publicly funded charter schools. “I am a supporter of Education Savings Accounts as part of my broad commitment to creating more school choice in Nevada. I am proud of the work my office did defending ESAs all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court,” said Laxalt in an interview.
PENNSYLVANIA: SCOTT WAGNER
Wagner, an early favorite for the Republican nomination for governor, is a most strident critic of public schools. He supports bringing DeVos’s education agenda to Pennsylvania with a statewide voucher plan. In addition, Wagner wants to eliminate benefits that educators earn, including sick days. He plans to end pensions for working educators and wants retired educators to give back 10% of the retirement they earned. Wagner recently raised the ire of educators and parents when he said the state’s 14 state colleges will not be around in four years. “So, for those of you who think your school’s going to be around four years from now, it isn’t going to be around,” Wagner said.
WISCONSIN: SCOTT WALKER
Gov. Walker, a recipient of generous contributions from the Koch brothers, gained national attention early in his term by signing into law a bill that strips the collective bargaining rights of educators. As governor he’s led the charge to expand a private voucher school industry that is taking millions of tax dollars out of the state’s public schools. Walker’s 2015 budget proposed removing any cap on vouchers, allowing unlimited statewide expansion of unaccountable voucher schools. Walker’s 2011-2013 budget slashed funding for K-12 education by $792 million—the biggest cut to education in Wisconsin’s history. That Walker budget also removed the enrollment cap on the Milwaukee school voucher program. Walker has close ties to voucher advocates, snagging nearly $2 million in gubernatorial campaign contributions from voucher backers since 2008.