The Pence-DeVos Threat to the Nation's Public Schools

Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have devoted their lives to privatizing public education. Both support charter expansion and advocate for the most controversial brand of “school choice” — state-funded vouchers to pay tuition to private and parochial schools.

Both argue the education status quo must be dismantled, and both see privatization and the free market as the fastest way to improve education.

DeVos and her husband call traditional public schools “government schools” to denote a broken bureaucracy and inferior product, and to undermine the argument that public schools are an engine of democracy.

The DeVos Family: Meet the Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working with the Religious Right to Kill Public Education," RawStory;
"The Right-Wing Machine Behind 'School Choice,'" In These Times

Dick and Betsy DeVos have already tried to influence education policy in New York State.

Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children contributed more than $337,000 to Thomas Carroll’s pro-education tax credit operation, the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, in 2013 and 2014.

Carroll’s various organizations — regardless of their various names — launched attacks against New York Democrats [New York Daily News].

The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation distributed more than $10 million in 2015 with big chunks aimed at influence education policy in New York, according to tax forms released by Politico. Here are some highlights:

DeVos - donations

Source: "A look at Betsy DeVos' charitable giving," Politico, Dec. 5, 2016

The Results

Where Pence’s and DeVos’ ideas and donations took root, vouchers and charter expansion sapped traditional public schools of millions of dollars, yet failed to improve student academic outcomes.

DeVos - charters in Michigan

Source: "Betsy DeVos and the twilight of public education,” Detroit Free Press, Editorial Page Editor, Dec. 6, 2016

Eight out of 10 Michigan charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools.
Source: Most Michigan Charters Have Lower Academic Achievement than the State Average,” The Education Trust, 2016

Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.
Source:A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift,” New York Times, June 28, 2016

Voucher students in Indiana and Louisiana scored lower on standardized tests after leaving public school through vouchers.
Source:On negative effects of vouchers,” Brookings Institution, May 26, 2016

A 2015 Duke University study into the Louisiana Scholarship Program found that vouchers recipients — who were mostly in poor majority-African American communities — had lower scores in math, reading ability, science and social studies after a year.
Source:School Vouchers and Student Achievement,” Duke University, Dec. 2015

The longest running voucher program in the country is the 20-year-old Milwaukee School Choice Program. Standardized tests show that the voucher students in private schools perform below the level of Milwaukee’s public school students, and even when socioeconomic status is factored in, the voucher students still score at or below the level of the students who remain in Milwaukee’s public schools. “Juniors using taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private high schools posted a lower overall ACT score — 18.2 — than public schools.”
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 18, 2016

Ohio ranks among the top five states in the number of charter schools with more than 370 charters that enroll 132,000 students. Yet a 2014 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes paid for by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found students in the state’s charter schools perform worse on average in reading and math than their peers in traditional public schools. An exception was Cleveland, where charter school students did better.
"Charter school scandal haunts John Kasich," Politico, March 14, 2016;
"Charter School Performance in Ohio," Stanford University, Dec. 9, 2014

Oregon's charter school movement is on life support, ranking worst among 18 states where at least 2 percent of students attend charter schools, a report by a pro-charter school group says.
Source: Oregon charter schools underperform, serve too few poor and minority students, study says,” The Oregonian, March 7, 2016

Professors at Duke found North Carolina’s charter schools had become increasingly segregated and argued these charter schools became a way for white parents to secede from the public school system, as they once did to escape racial integration orders.
Source:White parents in North Carolina are using charter schools to secede from the education system,” Washington Post, April 15, 2016

On Election Day, voters in liberal Massachusetts rejected a ballot measure by a 62-38 margin that would have increased the number of charter schools in the state, despite strong evidence that the state’s well-supervised charters produce superior results for low-income and minority schoolchildren.
Source: "Why Donald Trump's Education Pick Won't Be Able to Privatize U.S. Schools," New York Times, Nov. 23, 2016

The Plan

DeVos - Title I funds

Source: "Trump unveils $20B school proposal," Politico, Sept. 8, 2016

One of Trump’s few education campaign promises was to immediately allocate $20 billion for school choice by reallocating existing federal dollars. The money he would raid would likely be Title 1 education funds now dedicated to help poor children overcome the impact of poverty. States would be asked to collectively contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice. Together that would provide $12,000 in school-choice funds to every K-12 student who today lives in poverty.

The Odds

Could Trump actually do this?

The U.S. Education Department's current budget is about $70 billion, with roughly $15.5 billion going to Title I grants for districts, and $12 billion going to state grants for special education. Congress would have to amend the Every Student Succeeds Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Trump couldn't just snap his fingers and make the proposal a reality. He would have to go through Congress, which would have to pass the change by amending either ESSA or IDEA. That may not be easy. The Senate rejected a (somewhat similar) proposal from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in 2015 when Republicans controlled more seats than they will in the new Congress.
Source: "How Workable is Trump's $20 Billion School Choice Proposal?" Education Week, Dec. 13, 2016

Still, there are smaller-scale ways DeVos could get the ball rolling on vouchers. A first step might be asking Congress to restore federal funding to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the country's first federally funded, private-school voucher program. The House voted to extend funding earlier this year, but a companion bill has stalled in the Senate.
Source: "Trump's school choice expansion plan may face uphill battle," Associated Press, Nov. 16, 2016

A reminder: In 1990, no state had a school voucher program. Now, according to the pro-voucher advocacy group EdChoice, about 400,000 children in 29 states are going to private schools with the help of public state dollars, 13 via vouchers and 16 through derivative programs such as education tax credits or education savings accounts.
Source: "Trump picks billionaire Betsy DeVos, school voucher advocate, as Education Secretary," Mercury News, Nov. 23, 2016

How charters came to Michigan

DeVos and her husband, Dick, have been a major force behind the rapid expansion of charter schools in Michigan. She and her husband helped pass Michigan’s charter school law in 1993 and founded the school choice group Great Lakes Education Project.

As a result of their lobbying, Michigan has one of the most generous charter school laws in the nation, allowing an unusually large number of colleges, universities and school districts to grant charters, with little state oversight.

DeVos - profit charters

Sources: "A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift," New York Times, June 28, 2016; "DeVos family showers GOP with contributions after DPS vote," Detroit Free Press, Nov. 23, 2016

In Detroit, which has the nation’s second-highest share of students in charter schools, the charters have been characterized by a high churn of students, teachers as well as the companies that operate the schools.

DeVos beat back an attempt in 2016 for Michigan to provide more oversight to charters. DeVos poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers  —  an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislative package.

DeVos has been called the "the four-star general of the voucher movement.”
Source: The DeVos Family: Meet the Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working with the Religious Right to Kill Public Education," RawStory

In 2000, she helped get a ballot measure before Michigan voters that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s Constitution. After the measure failed, she and her husband formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally. DeVos’ approach is to offer individual legislators “rewards and consequences” for supporting or opposing vouchers.
Source: "School Privatization Continues to Advance DeVos/Heritage Foundation Strategy," Political Research Associates, Nov. 4, 2014

Less than a decade later, the group counted a 121–60 win-loss record including the defeat of 17 incumbents who were against school vouchers, as well as the successful election of four pro-voucher governors: Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Matt Blunt in Missouri, Jon Huntsman Jr. In Utah, and Mitch Daniels in Indiana.
Source: All Children Matter Media Kit

The Michigan state constitution, amended in 1970 to block private-school funding and upheld by voters in 2000, specifically says vouchers and tax credits for nonpublic schools are out of the question. But now some "corporate" education reform advocates in Michigan are considering a new end-run around this: education savings accounts.
Source: "Michigan is missing out on true school choice," Detroit News, June 19, 2015

Vouchers in Indiana

Indiana, where Vice President–elect Mike Pence was governor, has one of the most expansive voucher initiatives in the country. The initiative was upheld by that state’s Supreme Court in 2013.

Pence helped create a voucher system for an unlimited number of students to receive taxpayer dollars to attend private and religious schools. There is no cap on the number of students. This started out for low-income students, but grew to include middle-income families. There are no annual audits. Pence also helped created a $50 million low-interest loan program to help charters expand.
"What Did Mike Pence Do For Indiana Schools As Governor? Here's A Look," NPR, July 20, 2016;
"Report: Indiana’s Voucher Program One Of Most Expansive In Country," WFYI Indianapolis, Oct. 28, 2016

Copycat voucher legislation sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has helped spread his initiative to other states.

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