She made no secret of her disdain for traditional public schools — calling them “a dead end” in 2015 and derogatorily referring to them as “government schools.” Her selection as education secretary was applauded by religious conservatives and detractors of public schools — and decried by those who opposed her evangelism for the privatization of public education.
While she was education secretary, she unsuccessfully tried for years to persuade Congress to pass a $5 billion tax-credit program that would have funded scholarships to private and religious schools. Some said her failure to pass education legislation limited her impact — but she always made clear that she believed state legislatures were the vehicle for creating alternative school options for families.
And that’s what’s happening — especially after Republicans made gains in some state legislatures in the November elections.
Republican governors and state lawmakers are now stepping up efforts to pass legislation to increase the number of charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and to create programs that use public funds for private and religious schools, home schooling and online schools.
They are also trying to put new burdensome mandates directly on traditional public schools, which many see as the country’s most important civic education. For example, in Arizona, a Senate bill would require traditional public schools to publish a list of every single resource that teachers use in classrooms — including websites and videos — so that parents can opt their children out of the school if they don’t approve of the material. The requirement would not, however, be extended to private schools, and the rules would be looser for charter schools.
“DeVosism” included an effort to literally redefine public education. DeVos and her allies, especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), publicly called for a definition that essentially said: If public dollars are used for any kind of schooling, that makes it public education — even if the public has no say in how a school operates.
In 2019, DeSantis tweeted: “An important point to make is, you know, we talk about, ‘This is public school, this is charters.’ Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.” DeVos followed with this tweet: “Completely agree, @GovRonDesantis. ‘If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education.’ ”
Some states have operated “school choice” programs for years, finding various ways to use public funds for private and religious education. For example, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for school choice, there were 29 voucher programs in 16 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, in the 2018-19 school year.
Now in New Hampshire, where Republicans reclaimed control of the legislature in the November elections, there is new legislation that would create a voucher program that would make nearly every student in the state eligible to use public money for private school, home schooling and other education-related expenses.
In Florida, the state Senate this week advanced a broad proposal that would reconfigure and expand the state’s choice program and convert vouchers into state-funded school savings accounts that would allow families to use them for schooling outside neighborhood public schools.
“Had we pumped the type of money that we’ve been putting into these programs into the public-school system, I can tell you I would have a better outcome from the students in my district,” Thurston said.
Here is a summary of some of the bills introduced in state legislatures as compiled by Carol Burris, with research assistance from Anthony Cody and Marla Kilfoyle. The three are part of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization that opposes the privatization of public education. The following was included in a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog.
Some of these programs give funding to families directly, while others use tax credits or other financial instruments — but they are all aimed at doing the same thing: privatizing public education.
Over three years, Senate Bill 1041 would increase the amount the state spends on School Tuition Organization vouchers, from $5 million to $20 million. In 2017, tax dollars diverted into deductible voucher “donations” exceeded a billion dollars, providing “donors” with a dollar-for-dollar tax credits. Senate Bill 1452 expands the state’s education savings account voucher.
Florida SB 48 aims to merge and expand the multiple voucher programs that already exist into two programs. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “The 158-page proposal would merge the state’s five key school choice programs and make them all state-funded. It would also convert the scholarships into more flexible education savings accounts by merging the state-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship program, an ESA program, with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and the Hope Scholarship Program. Also, it would merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities with the Gardiner Scholarship Program under a new name — the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.” Note that the scholarships are actually vouchers for families to use at private and religious schools, resulting in taxpayers paying for private school education.
If passed, this bill would also reduce the frequency of audits to detect fraud from every year to once every three years, increase the yearly growth rate of voucher programs, and expand the use of public funds for private education.
House Bill 60 is a neo-voucher that would allow students who withdraw from a local public school to take state funding with them to use as a scholarship to a private school. In Georgia, about 50 percent of school funding comes from the state. This would have a devastating effect on school districts who would likely lose far more than they would save by an individual student’s withdrawal.
House Bill 1005 would greatly expand the state’s voucher program by allowing families with incomes up to $145,000 a year to participate. That amount is near twice the median income of families in the state and provides taxpayer assistance to families who can already comfortably afford to send their child to a private school. According to an estimate from the Legislative Services Agency, it could increase the number of students receiving state stipends by about 40 percent in 2021-22.
Some 12,000 students already attending such schools would be eligible for state funding — costing taxpayers $100 million in the first year alone. In addition, the bill would add a new “Education Savings Accounts,” which would be made available to parents with students with special needs.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed SSB 1065, (now known as SF 159) which is being fast-tracked through the state Senate. This “school choice” bill would:
- Provide up to $5,200 per student in “state scholarships” for parents to use for private school tuition or home schooling expenses.
- Greatly expand charter schools in the state by allowing applicants to start a charter school by going straight to the state board, bypassing the school district.
- Allow students to transfer out of their local public schools with a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.
The Courier quoted state Sen. Pam Jochum (D) as saying that this bill is being fast-tracked. “Obviously, the faster they move it, the less chance there is for push back from the public that’s not happy with this kind of a change because it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private,” she said.
House Bill 2068 and Senate Bill 61 are allegedly designed to expand school vouchers in the state via a tax credit program. They are, at their core, an attempt to create a taxpayer-funded invitation to discriminate.
According to the Kansas School Boards Association, these bills would allow private schools that discriminate in admissions based on achievement, religion, gender, disability, or sexual preference to participate in the tax-credit program. They would neither be required to be accredited nor report student results.
“Scholarships” created by these tax dollars could be as generous as $8,000.
House Bill 149 would create a new “Education Opportunity Account” program that would allow participants to divert their tax dollars into accounts to be used as voucher funds for private or parochial school tuition.
Senate Bill 55 would, critics say, effectively destroy public education in Missouri. It began as two Senate bills to create vouchers and expand charters. They were then loaded onto SSB 55 at the last minute, which included provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing. According to the Missouri School Boards Association, the bill now includes:
School board member recall: Requires an election to recall a school board member if a petition is submitted signed by at least 25 percent of the number of voters in the last school board election. It would also restrict members of the state board of education to one term.
Education scholarship account/vouchers: Creates up to $100 million in tax credits for donations to an organization that gives out scholarships for students to attend a home-school or private school — including for-profit virtual schools.
Charter school expansion: Authorizes charter schools to be opened in an additional 61 school districts located in Jackson, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties, or in cities of 30,000 or more, and allows charters opened in provisionally and unaccredited districts to remain open even after the school district regains accreditation.
Direct access to virtual charter schools: Allows students enrolling in MOCAP (The Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program) full time to apply directly to the vendor, thus pushing the resident school district and professional educators out of the process.
House Bill 20 would create a universal voucher program entitled “Education Freedom Accounts,” which would take state dollars from monies allocated to support public schools and give them directly to parents to use for private school tuition, home schooling costs and other education-related expenses. The per-student amount would range from $3,786 and $8,458 based on eligibility and costs.
Persuading Americans to buy into such a radical concept took years of work. Joseph P. Overton, an electrical engineer, was senior vice president of the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the 1990s until he died in 2003. The Mackinac Center is located in Michigan, Betsy DeVos’s home state. Overton is most known for creating the Overton Window — a means by which to analyze and rebrand extreme policies to make them more acceptable to the public. According to Overton, only those policies identified as “in the window” are politically possible. Therefore, if one wishes to make the unacceptable or unthinkable acceptable, the solution is to shift the window.
According to Mackinac, the example Overton often used to illustrate the window’s movement is the changed public perception of school choice. In the 1980s, advocating for charter schools was politically dangerous. As charters became more acceptable, so did school choice, which in turn allowed conservative politicians to advocate for home schooling, private school tax credits and charter expansion.
And here we are today. What was once unthinkable — the dismantling of our nation’s public schools — is now a real possibility.