Betsy DeVos Is Gone, But Her Education Agenda Is Rolling Out Across the Country

Yves here. Funny how Betty DeVos was, according to the liberal and leftist press, one of the worst in the pantheon of Trump Administration monsters, yet remarkably little has been said on how much of her education-as-rentierism is merrily moving forward across the US.

By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools and a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy.  Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools

Supporters of public education and school teachers were relieved to see Betsy DeVos leave her job as head of the Department of Education, knowing full well the education policies she and former President Trump supported would go nowhere in a President Biden administration. But they should remain incensed over how her efforts to privatize public schools are being rolled out in state legislatures across the country.

In states as politically diverse as Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, and New Hampshire, state legislators are introducing bills to increase the number of charter schools and create new school voucher programs or greatly expand current ones. According to the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI), a think tank that advocates for vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of “school choice,” there are at least 14 states actively considering legislation to pour greater sums of taxpayer dollars intended for public education into privately operated schools. Many of the bills have been introduced since the November 2020 elections, which ousted Trump and DeVos but resulted in big gains for Republicans down-ticket.

These proposals to privatize public schools are taking on new forms that are less transparent, would be easier to pass through legislation, and take larger sums of money from public schools, which educate between 80 and 90 percent of American children. Further, the bills are surfacing when public education is highly vulnerable due to the pandemic and the ensuing economic havoc it is wreaking.

Package Bills Pushing Privatization

In Florida, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana, lawmakers are considering new bills that condense various “school choice” proposals into a “package” of legislation that can be passed with one vote rather than be subjected to public scrutiny one proposal at a time.

In Florida, Republican legislators have proposed a bill, SB 48, that would expand the state’s school voucher programs, the Orlando Sentinel reports, and “spend more money on them.” Among the many proposals in the bill is to combine the state’s five voucher programs under a single taxpayer-funded source that the Miami Herald describes as “the holy grail in the school-choice movement.”

Funding for Florida vouchers, often called “scholarships,” has come via a program that rewards tax credits to corporations and individuals who donate to a scholarship agency. Under the provisions in SB 48, funding would instead come from government-established educational savings accounts (ESAs) for families to use to pay for educational expenses.

During her tenure as secretary, DeVos repeatedly included a proposal for a federal ESA program in her annual budget, and she advocated for the federal government to create an ESA program for military families. ESAs are popular with school choice proponents because they expand the range of education services that can be purchased with public funds, from private school tuition to tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.

The Florida bill also proposes to expand the number of families who can take advantage of the voucher program. Among those who would become newly eligible, the Florida School Boards Association notes, are students who are already enrolled in private schools or who are homeschooled. In other words, families who are already opting out of public school would now receive a subsidy from the taxpayers to continue to do so.

Another proposal in the Florida bill would make the voucher program less accountable by decreasing the frequency of required program audits from annual to once every three years. ESA programs, however, are in need of even more stringent oversight. A 2018 state audit of Arizona’s ESA program found parents used their debit cards to make “fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated” by the program, according to the Arizona Republic.

A new bill up for consideration in Missouri calls for a similar “package” of school choice measures, the Missouri Times reports.

The bill, SB 55, originated as a proposal to make public school districts allow homeschooled students to participate, free of charge, in after-school sports and activities. But as the bill made its way through committee, it was loaded with “provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing,” according to an alert sent out by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public school advocacy nonprofit organization.

Included in the bill is a proposal to allow new charter schools, which were originally confined to just St. Louis and a district in Kansas City, to start up in any municipality with a population above 30,000. Another provision added to the bill would establish a tax credit program, similar to the one in Florida, that allows donors to take a tax credit for their contributions, which are then issued to eligible parents to pay for private school tuition, virtual schooling, or homeschooling.

The bill also levels a broadside at state and local school boards by limiting state board members to one term only and by requiring a recall election for any local school board member when a petition campaign generates the number of signatures that equals at least 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last school board election—a ridiculously low threshold since school board elections generally have very low turnout.

In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds is behind a multipronged privatization effort to create a school voucher program, establish an independent charter school organization to increase new charter startups (the state currently has only two charters), and allow students to transfer out of public schools that have voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.

The bill, introduced as Senate Study Bill 1065 but now known as SF 159, according to the Network for Public Education, “is being fast-tracked through the state Senate.”

Republican state lawmakers are denying the bill is being fast-tracked, according to the Gazette, but the newspaper’s reporter notes the legislature made “some unusual procedural moves… to keep the proposal moving forward.”

Should the bill pass, “it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private,” Iowa Senator Pam Jochum told the Gazette.

In Indiana, the bill Republicans are pushing expands the state’s current voucher program, one of the largest in the country, and creates a new ESA program, Chalkbeat reports.

The Bill, HB 1005, would expand vouchers to wealthier families earning up to about $145,000 per year, nearly double the state’s median family income of $74,000, resulting in a 40 percent increase in the number of voucher-funded students.

The voucher program, which “cost the state about $173 million last school year,” according to Chalkbeat, will add “more than $100 million” to the cost of vouchers in its first year alone. The bill’s provision for a new ESA program is the “most costly element” of the bill, says Chalkbeat, because “[t]he program would be more generous than vouchers.”

This Is Not What People Want

What’s telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side.

Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly. In 2016, a ballot referendum to expand charter schools in Massachusetts was soundly defeated. The same year in Georgia, a ballot initiative to turn low-performing public schools over to charter management companies was defeated decisively. And a 2018 effort to expand eligibility for Arizona’s voucher program lost at the ballot box.

Vouchers and charter schools also don’t register as big winners in surveys of public opinion.

According to a 2020 poll by Education Next, an organization that advocates for charters and vouchers, “Support for school-choice reforms either holds steady or declines modestly since last year.” The poll found that tax credit programs like the ones proposed in Missouri and Iowa are favored by 59 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats, but it’s really hard to believe that most people understand these obscure programs and their consequences. Also, charter schools have become highly divisive along party lines, with 54 percent of Republicans supporting them and only 37 percent of Democrats feeling likewise.

What’s also significant about these new school choice initiatives is that Republicans are seeing them as leverage to push through other unpopular measures—in the case of Missouri, to undermine the popular vote and the democratic process used to elect school board members, and in Iowa, to attack racial integration, to undermine the rights of students and families of color, and to continue the dominance of white Western thought in school curricula.

Taking Advantage of a Crisis

School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.

Many parents are beyond distraught with their children’s situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning.

Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools.

Governor Reynolds, in her 2021 Condition of the State speech to the Iowa legislature, declared, “If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice. And it’s not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it’s about which school to attend altogether.”

That theme is prevalent throughout the right-wing and school choice echo chambers—whose funders generally overlap—from local newspapers, to nationwide campaigns, to mainstream media.

It’s true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.

And in some states, the playing field is being tilted to favor non-public schools.

For instance, when private schools in Ohio sued to be exempt from closure mandates issued by local health departments, a federal court agreed. The ruling came at the same time Ohio private schools were getting an enrollment boost where local schools stayed remote.

In North Carolina, when the state announced its pilot program for giving rapid antigen tests to schools, the list included 11 charter schools, and in three of the state’s largest school districts—Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth—the only schools getting the tests were charters, reported Carolina Public Press.

A False Choice

But basing broad public policy on the individual choices of some parents during a time of great stress is promulgating a false choice.

Children engaged in face-to-face learning in private and charter schools can still get COVID-19. In North Carolina, figures released by the state health department in November 2020 indicated that outbreaks in private schools made up the majority of school-related COVID-19 clusters in the state.

Also, in most cases, parents switching to charter schools actually reduce their choices by subjecting their children’s education to the whims of charter management companies.

Amid spiking infection rates in Florida, a charter school near Jacksonville decided to end parents’ option to choose online learning for their children. In New York City, the largest chain of charter schools has chosen to offer online learning only. A nationwide survey conducted for Education Next’s journal in November and December 2020 found that 66 percent of students attending charter schools receive remote instruction exclusively, while the percentage of students receiving remote instruction in traditional public schools is less—57 percent.

When school districts make these sorts of decisions, parents can at least voice their opinion at school board meetings, to county commissioners, and with state legislatures. And they do. But parents who enroll in charters, private schools, and other privately run options have no choice other than to leave the school, which, more often than not, is not a practical option, especially in the middle of an academic year.

Would states be ramping up these school privatization efforts had DeVos never set foot in the Department of Education? Probably. But her prominent leadership role and media persona raised public awareness of the well-funded and highly organized effort to privatize public schools and deepened political divisions over charter schools and voucher programs. What Republican state lawmakers are doing with these new legislative efforts will likely worsen those divisions.

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  1. Fraibert

    One reason I suspect the Democrats and members of the press have little to say is because, simply put, what can they say? If they must live in areas with public schools they deem are of insufficient quality, they avoid such schools, at least if they are able to afford private alternatives. Otherwise, they will seek out neighborhoods with good public schools, ideally in such locations where redistricting is unlikely, and will fight to the death to say the specter of any unexpected redistricting.

    In other words, the Democrats and members of the press generally can’t argue with parents trying to find the best education for their children (as the parents perceive it–I’m not saying charter or private schools are better) because _that’s what they do_, sometimes at significant cost.

    Interestingly, there is some “liberal” recognition of the issue, though unsurprisingly it gets examined through a racial lens. For example, the N.Y. Times has this whole series: But, realistically, this kind of thing is an exercise in liberal virtue signaling because parents are still going to try to do what’s best for their kids.

    1. anon

      A lot of schools, both public and private, are essentially customer-focused, i.e., they give the customer whatever they want. In the case of schools, those customers are the parents.

      While it’s nice to assume that parents all want their kids to do well academically, lots of parents just treat schools as free daycare centers with sports teams attached. The only time they will actually care about what their kid is doing is when their grades get too low for them to play sports. When this happens, they don’t ask “hey, what is my kid doing wrong”, they just demand that the teacher change the kid’s grade.

      I think some of the clustering is a tacit acknowledgement of that reality.

    2. Mark Dempsey

      The inadequacy of public schooling is part of the dumbing down of public discourse, and has been part of a long standing covert agenda of the political right. Reagan removed civics from the California high school curriculum. Newt Gingrich actually de-funded Congress’s advisory experts, so congressmen asked Facebook execs about how they charge for phone calls. (See “Why is Congress So Dumb“)

      As for the dumbing down of education, a few years ago the privatization advocates funded “Waiting for Superman,” a propaganda film produced by the same people who made “An Inconvenient Truth.” It recounted the story of then-school superintendent Michelle Rhee as she fired Washington D.C. teachers. The film also touted Finnish schools as the ones to emulate–conveniently omitting the fact that Finnish teachers were unionized, tenured and well paid.

      Ms Rhee later married Sacramento Mayor, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, or “Mr. #meetoo, and Rhee founded billionaire-funded “Students First,” an organization formed to promote (union busting) Charter Schools, merit pay (because teachers are so motivated by money), and testing to confirm schools were “adding value” in terms any MBA would understand.

      No science supports the Students First agenda as improving educational outcomes, but it does suggest another factor that correlates heavily with those outcomes: Childhood poverty (something that tripled under Thatcher in the U.K.). Childhood poverty in Finland: 2%. In the U.S.: 23%

      So…yes the funding deficit matters, but decreasing childhood poverty is seldom mentioned as a way to improve education. Incidentally, David Cay Johnston reports federal funding for higher education has diminished 55% since 1972. When I’ve mentioned this previously in NC, other posters have told me that’s a small reduction compared to what states have done. Prop 13 in California reduced its excellent schools to being the 48th in the U.S. in terms of per-student spending.

      One final comment about the rent-seeking privatization of schools. It reduces the quality of graduates, too. Whenever a teacher or professor can’t fail some student because it might impair their institution’s funding, then the institution tends to graduate people who have a certificate, but aren’t necessarily competent. On the other hand, this was in play and certificates were persuasive enough to convince the Hollywood college admissions cheats…. Well, it is better to look good than to feel good (and you look mahvelous, dahling!)…

      1. Ping

        This “dumbing down” for a much less thoughtful, factually uninformed and thus more easily manipulated public is by design. The removal of civics education about how government is supposed to function for a healthy society is substituted with simplistic campaign sloganeering that suffices.

        There was a time when a family could be supported in the now exported manufacturing sector with the security of benefits or other professions allowed for modest but adequate one parent income and basic needs were not heavily financialized. So the vast majority of people are now like hamsters on a wheel working multiple jobs with no security or benefits, exhausted and frustrated, and with no time to read and learn.

        My state AZ (producing many of the Jan 6 legislator and mob crazies) at the nation’s bottom for per student funding, continues to ferociously dismantle public education. “Red for Ed” the massive teacher protest flooding streets with 10’s of thousands wearing red tee shirts fought intensely for Prop 208 which passed. Now the criminally insane legislature is undoing the voter approved school funding because those making over 250K a year should not have to kick in a little extra for public education. And that precedent can’t be allowed to stand for other states.,_Tax_on_Incomes_Exceeding_$250,000_for_Teacher_Salaries_and_Schools_Initiative_(2020)

        Now Congressional Dems are asking AZ Gov Ducey to explain use of 400 million federal CARES funds that was supposed to go to schools, renters, and businesses but instead he diverted to backfill agencies allowing them to return cash to general fund, a strategy for proposal to cut income taxes by 600 million a year.

        This when the state has a dire deficit in public services. In his 2016 budget, Ducey made further drastic cuts to education, already at the nation’s lowest and a program called KidsCare (health care for children of working poor) yet “buried in the budget” according to AZ Capitol Times, Ducey allocated over 1 million dollars for Az based Safari Club International’s agenda—-litigating against federal species protection and increased hunting access on state land for this big political donor in a “dark money” state. hmmm……

        I often mention sadness for school kids now when I see how stripped down primary public education is today. Most of the charter school buildings I see are cement blocks with a parking lot. No playgrounds for essential physical activity for now unhealthy sedentary kids. There are no electives, like shop or other skills, music, no languages or opportunities to support interests. And yes, no CIVICS!

        It’s by design and our legislature takes marching orders from ALEC too implementing their boiler plate legislation to dismantle public education.

      2. k

        I agree with your points, but I ask you to pay attention to the framing. The right puts some thoughts into the terms they use to describe things, and too often people on the left pick start using this biased language, undercutting their own arguments.

        Consider using “test score pay” instead of “merit pay” when talking about proposals to base pay on test scores. Actual merit has very little to do with highly variable and gameable testing. A voucher is a thing you hand over to receive something. Something that gives you money off the full price is properly called a coupon, so talk about coupon programs unless the state is actually giving real paid in full vouchers. I’ve never seen a proposal to actually pay the full tuition at nice private schools, so true voucher plans are rare if they exist at all.

  2. LowellHighlander

    I would like to add, for others to comment upon, a further danger I see with charter schools. Even a cursory history of incorporation in the United States shows that, in the early American republic, corporations were held to account by States: if they didn’t perform in accord with their stated purpose in applying to a State legislature for a charter, the charter could be (and sometimes was) revoked. Now, too many corporations have their ownership spread out through stocks such that these corporations are bought and sold. This to me is one factor – along with incorporation in Delaware – that puts corporate accountability so much out of reach of many legislatures. Is this what will eventually become of charter schools ? Will they eventually be [commonly] bought and sold on exchanges, such that parents and even legislatures will experience a damnable time in holding anyone to account?

    1. Jeff Bryant

      Will they be? “Leaders of KIPP Houston and BBVA Compass on Monday celebrated a $1.8 million naming-rights agreement that will help fund the charter network’s newest campus. Under the deal, which has been in the works for more than a year, the campus of KIPP Nexus on Houston’s northwest side will be called BBVA Compass Opportunity Campus. The agreement marks the first time a KIPP network has sold naming rights to a campus, continuing a slow-moving trend of schools selling naming rights to facilities as a way to generate revenue.”

  3. chris

    There is also a bill in the works in Maryland that will give parents a voucher to pay for schooling of their choice rather than rely on public schools.

  4. Bob Hertz

    The charter school movement has been given great impetus by the stubborn refusal of many teacher’s unions to compromise on in-person learning during Covid.

    To my knowledge, the number of Covid cases in schools that did open has been extremely small. No other public servants or grocery clerks have the luxury to stay home and collect paychecks indefinitely.

    The resulting anger has nothing to with DeVos, who by the way I despise for a number of other reasons.

    1. Reality Bites

      Data from Israel reopening schools indicates that it is not a great situation. And Israel provided assistance and real social distancing requirements. Most school districts in the US failed to provide any real mitigation measures. That grocery clerks and many others could not stay home was a failure of the government and a symptom of lack of unions. Moreover, many public servants are allowed to telework or come in on office rotations that maximize social distancing.

    2. Jeff Bryant

      Did you bother reading the article? It may be true that the charter industry is gaining some advantage from the pandemic but it’s based on perception, not reality. As the article states, “A nationwide survey conducted for Education Next’s journal in November and December 2020 found that 66 percent of students attending charter schools receive remote instruction exclusively, while the percentage of students receiving remote instruction in traditional public schools is less—57 percent.” In other words, charters offer parents no advantage in terms of having in-person learning.

      1. chris

        Yep, that’s what we’ve found in Maryland too. That due to the law there actually isn’t that much of an option between public school and charter school. But the idea of charter school makes some parents happy. However, the proposal of “virtual academies” did gain traction throughout the country in public schools and those do have a different model than the students who are getting public education virtually right now. In our part of Maryland this idea flopped pretty hard because our school district made it clear that teachers in the academy would be hired on a different basis than the traditional school route and there would be no seniority carried over. So our teachers screamed, the local board of Ed caved, and we did not see a virtual academy start in the county.

    3. Baldanders

      No chance this is just part of the right/”pro business” narrative that “teachers are the enemy?” Nah. You do realize teacher’s unions are nearly powerless in about half the country, right?

      Our cities will all be social justice paradises once we defund the police, too.

      Because in America, The Enemy is always to your side or beneath you, never up.

  5. Sound of the Suburbs

    I know you elites do like your neoliberalism and the really bad economics it’s based on, but it’s not really doing us any favours, is it?

    Economists do identify where real wealth creation in the economy occurs, but this is a most inconvenient truth as it reveals many at the top don’t actually create any wealth.
    This is the problem.
    Much of their money comes from wealth extraction rather than wealth creation, and they need to get everyone thoroughly confused so we don’t realise what they are really up to.
    They need to confuse making money and creating wealth, so all rich people look good.

    This is what has happened at the most fundamental level.
    Don’t get confused between making money and creating wealth.
    When you equate making money with creating wealth, people try and make money in the easiest way possible, which doesn’t actually create any wealth.
    In 1984, for the first time in American history, “unearned” income exceeded “earned” income.
    The American have lost sight of what real wealth creation is, and are just focussed on making money.
    You might as well do that in the easiest way possible.
    It looks like a parasitic rentier capitalism because that is what it is. 
    Bankers make the most money when they are driving your economy into a financial crisis.
    They will load your economy up with their debt products until you get a financial crisis.
    On a BBC documentary, comparing 1929 to 2008, it said the last time US bankers made as much money as they did before 2008 was in the 1920s.
    At 18 mins.
    The bankers loaded the US economy up with their debt products until they got financial crises in 1929 and 2008.
    As you head towards the financial crisis, the economy booms due to the money creation of bank loans.
    The financial crisis appears to come out of a clear blue sky when you use an economics that doesn’t consider debt, like neoclassical economics.

  6. scott s.

    Every state is different. Here in Hawaii, there is a single district and the school board is appointed by the governor and managed through a hired superintendent who oversees the state DoE. Charter schools fall under a state Charter School Commission which is also within the DoE (as are all public libraries and the state librarian).

    This high level of concentration results in poor parent engagement. Parents are naturally most interested in “their” local schools, but while school principals are given some independence it’s also easy to shift responsibility “downtown”. Too, the teacher’s union has a single point of pressure which provides opportunity for influence. It also is subject to political pressures where we see things like the largest high school in the state is last in line for capital spending due to having republicans for both state representative (1 of 4 in the entire state) and senator (only republican).

    Charter schools are viewed as claimants for a piece of the education “pie” by the teachers union, hence they are poorly supported, and the union is quick to identify any shortfalls in governance. The charters have largely been specialized, in particular Hawaiian language immersion (in response the “regular” schools have implemented immersion programs in some schools, which I think is a win for charter school concept of competition).

  7. Sharron

    I worked in a large inner city school district, had a child attend school in a wealthy highly ranked school district, and a child in an exclusive IB Charter School all in Texas and have had my kids in American International School in Singapore. The differences are vast and challenging. The wealthy suburban school was large (to keep one football team in town) and while attempting to meet the needs of students was not an emotionally safe and supporting environment for my iconic child that didn’t fit the expected mold. The IB school offered a much smaller environment, close student/teacher collaboration and the ability to participate in my childs’ educational experience. It also offered a community feeling, somewhat like I remember from my childhood in a middle class small town. The large public school district I worked in, at all levels, was mostly struggling to educate the kids. The district had home rule, so the principal was king and all powerful(in my opinion this is way for the superintendent to avoid responsibility), therefore consistency through the district did not exist. The kids needed smaller classes as there so many deficits in much of the population. The most challenging schools were where the bad teachers were sent or migrated to as there seemed to be an acceptance of no or low progress for the students there. Middle and high schools in the city schools were just trying to get the kids out of the halls and into the classrooms before the fights started. In an effort to fight the flight to charters, the district did begin to offer their version of charter schools-small specialized “schools of excellence”, which they should have been doing all along. The international school was the best, as they had tons of money and it showed. The population was a very diverse ethnic population, but if you have effective management, teachers and money, most of the students do very well.

    I don’t know if we are willing to spend the money it takes to educate our lower income students, but what is happening now in most of those schools is a shame. All kids deserve a chance to have safe and welcoming environment to learn in with effective teachers. At this point, if I had kids in a city school, I would look at all schools to get the best education for my children.

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