by Félix Pérez; image by Gage Skidmore, Flickr
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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, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is running for re-election in November. 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.