by Félix Pérez
A little more than a year ago, Betsy DeVos assumed her post as secretary of education, eager to roll out the first-ever national school voucher program. But that was before reality came crashing in this past Friday.
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Congress, in its omnibus spending bill, rebuked the proposal by DeVos and President Trump to redirect scarce public dollars from public schools to private schools with a voucher scheme. Trump and DeVos pursued their voucher plan despite volumes of research that shows vouchers do not work, that they undermine accountability to parents and taxpayers, and that they have failed to provide opportunity to all of our students. Lawmakers did not include in the spending bill the $250 million private school voucher initiative the president and DeVos sought, as well as their $1 billion program designed to promote charters, on-line schools and home schooling. (Read more about what made it in the bill at the end of this article.)
That Trump and DeVos were unable to get their priority funded in a Republican-controlled Congress speaks to the distrust of the American public, 90 percent of whose children attend public schools. Voucher proponents like DeVos have sought to repackage their unpopular idea, sometimes as education savings accounts, education tax credits, personalized learning accounts or opportunity scholarships. But whatever they are called, they do the same thing: take scare funding from public schools.
The rejection of DeVos by Congress notwithstanding, there are several gubernatorial candidates who want to pursue her voucher agenda. Leading the way are:
ARIZONA: DOUG DUCEY
Like DeVos, Gov. Ducey enthusiastically supports vouchers. During his first-term Ducey took a page out of the DeVos privatization handbook. In addition to vouchers, Ducey, who got a $3,000 campaign donation from the DeVos family to run for office, created an environment welcoming to privately managed charter schools that are unaccountable to the communities they serve. Ducey touted the expansion of his signature school voucher-style program at a summit of Koch mega-donors during an annual summit near Palm Springs in January. The governor led the effort last year to expand the Arizona voucher program. Ducey and the Koch brothers have set their sights on saving Arizona’s expanded voucher law, put on hold last year via a referendum on the ballot this November.
ILLINOIS: BRUCE RAUNER
Rauner, dubbed the “worst Republican governor in America” by a conservative magazine, vetoed an 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. Previously, 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 educationin 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.
The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress:
- Contains a nearly $4 billion boost in education funding, with Title I, IDEA and Head Start all receiving important increases.
- Renews the expired Secure Rural Schools Act, with $426 million over two years.
- Provides $700 million for Title IV grants – flexible funding for school districts aimed at providing a well-rounded education and for use for counselors and school-based mental health services.
- Allocates $610 million for Head Start.
- Sets aside $86 million for Impact Aid, a critical funding source for local school districts that have lost property tax revenue due to tax-exempt federal property.
- Distributes $75 million for Career Technical Education.
- Allots $20 million for 21st Century Community Learning Centers (afterschool); the DeVos budget eliminated the program.
- Gives $2.37 billion for Child Care Development Block Grants.