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What Could Be More Democratic Than Pushing Vouchers for a Billionaire US Ed Sec?

June 1, 2017

US ed sec Betsy DeVos has one principal goal for American public education: Slice up its public funding and dispense it in the form of vouchers that can (and will) take that funding out of the public purview and into private school coffers.

DeVos’ voucher push has created a dynamic in which many pro-charter advocates feel that their slice of public money is threatened as it would enable their *choice* students to exit in favor of private schools.

Charter schools often refer to themselves as “public schools”; however, charter schools are often not held accountable to the public for the spending of that public money. Thus, charter schools are schools that receive public money, not public schools (i.e., operated by publicly-elected school boards).

Charter schools further enjoy the reality of not having to educate all students in a country in which states have compulsory education laws. The public schools are the “catch-all” of compulsory education. Charter schools are not.

If DeVos has her voucherizing way, then charter schools– which operate like private schools that receive public money– would have to compete with both public schools and private schools for public money.

Therefore, it makes sense that the likes of Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman would appear in the Los Angeles Times blasting vouchers.

It also makes sense to me that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten would be by his side, even going so far as to promote charter schools as “schools that are accountable to voters”– even though charter schools are not accountable to voters. Weingarten has an established history of promoting corporate reform ideas, including VAM, Common Core, and charter schools, and she will slap the AFT endorsement on political candidates who push corporate reform so long as those candidates are Democrats who seem likely to win their races.

In this May 31, 2017, post, education historian Diane Ravitch takes issue with Weingarten’s promoting charter schools as schools accountable to voters:

Randi Weingarten and Jonah Edelman co-wrote an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, standing strong against vouchers.

I still remember Jonah Edelman as the guy who bragged at the Aspen Ideas Festival that he had crushed the teachers’ union in Chicago by buying up all the best lobbyists and raising the bar for a strike to 75% of the membership. I remember that he went to Massachusetts and threatened a referendum unless the unions capitulated to his demands. Stand for Children was showered with millions by the Gates Foundation and other promoters of the corporate reform agenda. Edelman strongly supports charter schools, even though they promote racial segregation.

In the middle of a strong article against vouchers, this paragraph was dropped in:

We believe taxpayer money should support schools that are accountable to voters, open to all, nondenominational and transparent about students’ progress. Such schools — district and charter public schools — are part of what unites us as a country.

It is public schools that unite us as a country, not charter schools. We have seen a steady parade of scandals, frauds, abuses, waste of taxpayer dollars, exclusion of children with special needs, from the charter sector. …

Charter schools exist to bust unions and undermine public schools.

The same day, on May 31, 2017, Ravitch posted about the American Federation for Children (AFC) response to the Edelman-Weingarten Los Angeles Times piece.

AFC was founded by DeVos; another AFC founding board member, Kevin Chavous, responded.

One can read the entire Chavous response in the Ravitch post linked above.

One section caught my attention:

It is school choice–directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child–that is the most democratic of ideas. Rather than undermining public schools, choice helps public schools by virtue of having to compete with other options. Only among the K-12 establishment would competition be considered undermining public schools.

Uh huh.

Let’s begin examining the above Chavousian pro-voucher sell logic with sentence one:

It is school choice–directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child–that is the most democratic of ideas.

The US history of school vouchers is hardly “democratic.” In 1955, both Virginia and North Carolina issued tuition grants to allow public school students to attend private schools as a means of dodging racial integration required of Brown vs. Board of Education. One Virginia county even closed all of its public schools and issued private school tuition grants to white children only.

I detail this voucher history in my book, School Choice: The End of Public Education?

In 1961, Louisiana used tuition grants to private schools in order to preserve segregation. Even though all students receive tuition grants, students of color were only allowed to attend non-white private schools.

In Alabama in the early 1960s, the governor promised (and delivered) a whites-only private school, which was declared unconstitutional in 1964.

Other states (e.g., South Carolina, Mississippi) played games with their public schools in an attempt to avoid desegregation.

However, the best “democratic” effort to preserve racial segregation “by any lawful means” (i.e., creating tuition vouchers to private schools) involved numerous legislators signing a document called the “Southern Manifesto.” Specifically, 19 senators and 77 representatives from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia agreed to pursue legal efforts to avoid the federal integration mandate.

A favorite “legal” means of enforcing racial segregation was use of the private school voucher.

Of course, all vouchers were not created equal. That was the point.

And now, let’s examine this Chavous comment:

Rather than undermining public schools, choice helps public schools by virtue of having to compete with other options.

Note that the history of vouchers in the USA often involved closing the public schools and sending students to private schools using public money in order for states to avoid integrating the public schools. In other words, vouchers to private schools not only did not help the public schools; it also reinforced the reality that private school choice is an easy vehicle for reinforcing segregation. In the case of 1960s Louisiana, even though all parents in theory were “empowered” by receiving private school vouchers, the schools themselves had the final “choice” as to whether or not a student was allowed to enroll.

Don’t think it cannot happen in 2017.

And don’t think that creative voucher games cannot be played, such as allowing “undesirable” students to enroll and then booting them out for trivialities.

The public school accepts all students because the public school was created to answer the requirement of compulsory education.

Now, if Chavous really wants to give parents “choice,” he could advocate to kill compulsory education altogether. Let parents decide if they want to school their kids, period. However, even “father of school choice,” economist Milton Friedman, wasn’t willing to forsake compulsory education “if only 50 percent would be literate.”

As for school vouchers improving public schools, Friedman expected private schools to replace the public school “government system”:

I see the voucher as a step in moving away from a government system to a private system. Now maybe I’m wrong, maybe it wouldn’t have that effect, but that’s the reason I favor it.

In the business world, “competing with other options” often means going out of business. Just ask Kodak, Compaq, Woolworth’s, E.F. Hutton, and Eastern Airlines.

If Chavous maintains that vouchers “help” public schools, he needs to prove it. Indeed, I invite him to fly to New Orleans on Eastern Airlines to show me in person.

Let’s consider Chavous’ last sentence cited above:

Only among the K-12 establishment would competition be considered undermining public schools.

According to Chavous, the only resistance to school vouchers involves K12 ed trying to preserve itself.

Yet there are no vouchers in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and Betsy is a billionaire who loves vouchers. How can this be?

Answer: Despite the DeVos effort of spending at least $12.9 million in 2000 to amend the Michigan constitution to allow for public school vouchers for private religious schools the measure was opposed, 69 to 31 percent.

The union spent $6 million.

The DeVoses outspent the teachers union more than 2 to 1.

I ask Chavous: What could be more democratic than voters deciding to oppose public money flowing to private schools despite billionaire financing of an effort to promote it?

At least $12.9 million from one family.

Surely not all 69 percent of those Michigan voters represented “the K12 establishment”– but even if they did, they utilized the democratic process to uphold what was already part of the Michigan constitution (which the “K12 establishment” did not originally draft):

No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school.

But Betsy isn’t giving up. When her family’s $12.9 million didn’t pay off, she established the org/PAC, Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), to promote school choice in Michigan, and she still has AFC.

And she still has you, Mr. Chavous.

What could be more democratic?


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. LA Educator permalink

    The union in bed with the charter schools? The charters upset with DeVos’s “reforms”? This is so rich. What goes around comes around. Thanks for the history lesson on the preservation of segregation through public monies going to private schools in the 60s. More people need to be reminded of this. Keep the news coming, Mercedes!

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Keep the news coming, Mercedes!. Yes. But leave some time for R&R.

  3. And let us not forget that DeVos has given moe than $200 million to the Republican Party. That kind of money buys position.

  4. Jack Covey permalink

    One aspect of Chavous’s op-ed that so far no one one else — i.e. Mercedes, Peter “Curmudgucation” Greene, Jennifer Berkshire — has mentioned is .. well … Chavous is African American. Check out his picture and bio.

    I’m bringing that up because in her Senate testimony a week ago, Secretary Devos — who also funds American Federation of Children, and thus, currently pays Chavous’ salary at the AFC — unashamedly said that that she approves of “whites only” private schools funded by government money (via vouchers). Such “no-blacks-allowed” institutions, according to Secretary Devocs, should be allowed to exist, and the U.S. Dept. of Ed under her watch would not lift a finger to assist any blacks who were denied entry into one of those voucher-funded schools.

    Sweet Jesus!

    Did you ever think that you’d see the day that a prominent, veteran African American politician like Chavous (former leader of the Washington, D.C. City Council) would be throwing his weight behind the existence of segregated schools that openly turn away black students, and that he would put his back into promoting the notion that the U.S. government must fund, promote, and protect those schools, and those schools’ operators’ right to blatantly discriminate against those members of Chavous’ own race?

    Would you ever have imagined that such an African American politician as Chavous would echo the argument that “choice” should take precedence over the civil rights of his fellow African Americans? Wasn’t there a friggin’ civil war fought a century-and-a-half ago to end all this? Wasn’t there a court case called Brown vs. the Board of Education sixty-odd years ago that supposedly put a stop to this?

    We’re going backwards in time.

    • Money talks, Jack. Actually in Chavous’s case money commands. I believe Malcolm X would have probably called him a “house Negro”.

      • speduktr permalink

        Do you think Malcolm X would have been quite that polite?

  5. Trentonteacher permalink

    It’s about money not just ideology. Tax credit scholarships, new market tax credits, and other schemes to make it possible for corporations to avoid paying their share of state and local taxes to support public schools. These programs also prop up lucrative real estate redevelopment projects for hedge fund firms in urban areas under the guise of education. Does anybody really believe it’s about the kids?

  6. Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    To Besty DeVos, democracy is when she is the only one who gets what she wants all the time.

  7. To Betsy DeVos, democracy is when she gets what she wants all the time no matter what anyone else things – like the voters from her home state that voted 2 to 1 against what Betsy wants. To Betsy, if the voters vote against what she wants, that isn’t a democracy.

  8. Charles Martin permalink

    When the public’s children go to ANY school, and the costs are borne by the public, that is public education.

  9. Charles Martin permalink

    Traditionally, competition has been shown to improve the individual players in the economic model. Choice will help public schools, by forcing them to “feel the spur” of competition. Public schools will see some students exiting their schools for alternative schools. Public schools will then be forced to ask themselves “why”. Why are our students (customers), leaving? Then the public schools will have to examine what the non-public schools are offering. Public schools will have to change and alter their programs, to better meet the needs of their student population. The operative phrase here is “to better meet their needs”. If the public schools change, the number of students exiting, will decline. The students are better off, and the school is better off.

    One of the principal tenets of Wal-Mart, is that they are always willing to learn from their competitors, and adopt any idea or policy that is beneficial.

    • speduktr permalink

      The assumption being that change only comes through competition? Funny, I never changed a lesson plan because I was competing with another teacher. There were those teachers who would steal projects and claim them as their own to garner favor with the powers that be, but other teachers soon learned how to protect themselves from them. They were the ones who actively sought district recognition and were usually acolytes of some highly placed administrator. Most teachers were more than willing to share ideas and materials in a spirit of collegiality. We were all working together toward a common goal.

      • Charles Martin permalink

        I did NOT say that change only comes through competition. Schools change, due to all types of circumstances. The great school reformer, Horace Mann, brought in all types of changes, many of which continue to this day. Dry-erase boards replaced chalk boards. The great philosopher Heraclitus said, “We live in a world, in which the only constant is change” see

        When public schools are faced with competition from private/parochial schools, the rate of change will accelerate. What public/government schools have now is “take it or leave it, but we still get your money”. This attitude engenders ossification, and gives very little incentive to change.

  10. Charles Martin permalink

    The so-called “Blaine amendments” like the one you cite Q No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school ENDQ

    are heading for the trash-heap of history. The Supreme court is considering the case of Trinity Lutheran school v. Pauley, and a decision is expected soon.

    The state of Missouri already gave the tire chips for the school playground. Public money, to advance education in sectarian schools, has been constitutional for many years. Tax funds go to transportation, books, maps, food service, all types of things at private/parochial schools.

    When the public’s children go to a school, and the public picks up the costs, it is public education.

    • Trentonteacher permalink

      Voucher Program Helps Well-Off Vermonters Pay for Prep School at Public Expense – ProPublica

    • speduktr permalink

      Just because public monies are used to fund something does not make it public. My town contracts with a recycling company to pick up goods for recycling. We pay for it through our village bill. The company is not public; it is a private company.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider on “Choice” and Devos | GFBrandenburg's Blog
  2. Mercedes Schneider: The True History of School Choice | Diane Ravitch's blog
  3. Ed News, Tuesday, June 6, 2017 Edition | tigersteach

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