By Esther Galen
21 March 2017
President Trump’s budget proposal released Thursday cuts $9.2 billion from Department of Education funding. But there is one funding boost, the only increase in funding for domestic social programs in the entire Trump budget: a $1.4 billion increase for “school choice” programs. This includes $1 billion for the promotion of school vouchers, where families are given a set amount of money, which they can spend on private, charter, religious or even online schools.
Trump proposed $20 billion for school vouchers during his campaign last fall. He did not present any details except to say the funds would come from existing federal dollars spent on education. During his inaugural address, Trump denounced the public school system, saying it was “an education system, flushed with cash” that “leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”
The president is determined to accelerate the decades-long campaign, pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to dismantle public education and funnel even more money into the hands of private business interests. In choosing billionaire Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, Trump has selected someone with a clear record of seeking to destroy public education.
The United States government is in the process of turning back the clock for public education. CEOs of the largest corporations, the Democrats and Republicans, and the courts all agree that society does not have an obligation to provide all students with a high-quality education.
The mantra of “school choice” means that the capitalist market should determine how—and whether—students get educated. Parents, as “consumers,” will have a choice as to where they send their children to be educated and evaluate what they bought. If they’re not happy with the school giving the education they purchased, they can look for another one, as though they were buying a pair of shoes. And of course, just as when people shop, those who are wealthier can afford better products, in this case, schools. The working class and poor will not be able to afford quality education.
While private schools choose what students to admit and keep enrolled, public schools are legally bound to serve all children, including special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) and low-income students. The purpose of vouchers is to starve the public schools of desperately needed resources to finance private and parochial schools.
Trump says he plans to take the $20 billion for vouchers from already existing funds. Will the federal government end Pell Grants to low-income students to go to college ($22 billion in 2016)? Will it cut Title I state grants ($14.9 billion) that help improve learning of low-income elementary and secondary students and provide them with school lunches? Will special education state grants ($11.9 billion) be hit, or Head Start ($9.2 billion), which is technically funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and provides preschool and other family health services to low-income families?
There are many other federal grants to states that may be cut, including funds for School Improvement, Striving Readers, Math and Science Partnerships, and Rural Education.
Currently, public school funding comes from the federal government (10 percent), local government (45 percent, mostly through property taxes) and state government (45 percent). Much of federal funding has been for programs to assist low-income or disabled students. When these funds are ended, it will devastate whole working class communities.
As to state funding, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession.”
But far from increasing funds to public schools, vouchers will destroy them. States have been implementing voucher programs since the early 1990s, starting with the first Bush administration and continuing with Clinton, Bush and Obama. All these administrations passed legislation on public education used to undermine public schools.
State voucher programs
Today, 27 states and Washington, D.C., have some sort of voucher program, and some have more than one type, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The vouchers are also called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), Tax-Credit Scholarships, Individual Tax Credits and Individual Tax Deductions.
- Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have vouchers that give private schools state funding to pay tuition for students, primarily those who are low-income, have special needs or attend so-called poor-performing schools.
- Seventeen states, including Indiana and Florida, have tax credit scholarship programs. A nonprofit scholarship-granting organization is formed to collect donations from individuals and/or corporations, who then get a tax credit; the nonprofit gives private school scholarships to eligible students.
- Eight states give tax credits or deductions to parents who send their kids to private schools, according to EdChoice. In Indiana and Louisiana, families can deduct tuition on their taxes, while Illinois and Iowa let parents claim a tax credit for their children’s private school tuition.
- In five states, including Arizona and Mississippi, education savings accounts let parents choose how to spend the state’s per-pupil allotment for their child’s education—whether it’s putting them in private school or paying for tutoring.
Vouchers in Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is America’s longest-running private school voucher program, begun in 1990. About 28,200 Milwaukee students now use vouchers to attend private schools. A big spike in attendance occurred in 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that families could use their state vouchers at religious schools.
The program has shifted public spending on education in the city. Milwaukee Public Schools will see a $52.1 million loss this school year to pay for its share of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. By 2014, it was expected the total amount of public money spent on vouchers in Milwaukee would surpass $1.7 billion.
Public school enrollment has declined and a fifth of the students who remain are classified as having disabilities, from learning to emotional to physical. Forty-one percent of all private schools that participated in the Milwaukee private school voucher program between 1991 and 2015 have closed.
Milwaukee Public Radio aired a series with many interviews on the voucher program’s 25th anniversary. Milwaukee School Board member Larry Miller, who has been involved with the district for the voucher program’s entire history, said, “It’s transformed the landscape in the sense of it becoming a free-market competition. This program, in my opinion, started as a program for low-income students and has turned into a movement now to dismantle public education. … I feel that the results that we’re seeing now are the results of a failed experiment.”
Barbara Miner, who wrote Lessons from the Heartland, about the history of education in Milwaukee, is a leading critic of the voucher program, saying it blurs the separation of church and state and leaves Milwaukee Public Schools facing the highest hurdles. “Private schools operate by completely different rules than public schools,” she told Milwaukee Public Radio. “They do not have to follow the federal special education law. They do not have to provide bilingual education,” Miner said. “They can kick kids out and there’s no constitutional right to free speech or due process.”
Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow at Marquette Law School and long-time education reporter, reviewed several sets of studies. He was asked, what have the scores shown since 2010? He responded, “The notion that the voucher program would lead to a major step forward for all students in the City of Milwaukee, unfortunately, has not been true.”
The New York Times recently reviewed research assessing student progress in voucher programs compared to public schools. In 2015, researchers published their assessment of the Indiana voucher program, which involved tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement. They also saw no improvement in reading.”
More negative results
Researchers found similar results when they studied Louisiana’s voucher program and released the results in February 2016. “Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families. They came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school. They found large negative results in both reading and math.”
Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature—not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.”
In June, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, released a third voucher study financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation. It focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers wrote.
By Esther Galen
22 March 2017
Billionaires set the education agenda
Billionaires and their foundations see opportunities to increase their wealth through school privatization. They’ve gotten a lot of experience already with setting up charter schools, many of which accept vouchers. For example, the New Markets Tax Credit that was initiated by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s combines “the private sector and the federal government—to bring economic and community development to low-income communities” (Treasury Department).
The tax credit gives hedge fund managers and wealthy investors opportunities to make money from charter schools. They get a 39 percent tax credit that more than doubles the returns on these investments in about seven years.
David Brain, head of the real estate investment firm Entertainment Properties Trust, appearing on CNBC in 2012, said charter schools are “probably the most profitable sector in real estate investment. … I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product.”
That’s not how school reformers described schools 87 years ago. What we today describe as public schools began in the 1830s as the Common School movement. The reformer Horace Mann proposed a system of free, universal and nonsectarian schools for all children, regardless of religion or social class. Students would gain knowledge, while learning how to be productive democratic citizens.
Today, the ruling class wants to indoctrinate students with free market propaganda. Kevin K. Kumashiro analyzed this agenda in an article for the journal of the American Association of University Professors in May-June 2012, titled, “When Billionaires Become Educational Experts: ‘Venture philanthropists’ push for the privatization of public education.”
His article traces the influence of the business sector in education and how it has changed, noting, “In recent years a handful of millionaires and billionaires have come to exert influence over educational policy and practice like at no other time in American history.”
“Venture philanthropists” seek to develop a layer of students who embrace capitalism and conservative ideologies, produce research that makes conservative ideologies accessible and can take leading positions in government and advocacy organizations.
To do this, they had to destroy public education. As Kumashiro writes, “At the top of the chopping block was public education, considered by some to be a drain on the government and a crutch for society not only because it was the most expensive of domestic enterprises but also because it exemplified what they considered to be a socialist enterprise. Conservatives called for the entire school system to be privatized, made into a free enterprise, and the conservatives’ strategy of choice was school vouchers.”
The right-wing economist and free-market advocate Milton Friedman first proposed school vouchers to “denationalize” education more than half a century ago. He wrote, “Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum they themselves provided on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice. … The role of government would be limited to insuring that the schools met certain minimum standards, such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants” (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962).
This appreciation of education delivered like fast food is promoted today by the top-giving venture philanthropies, which include the Broad Education Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
And they don’t just sit on the sidelines. They participate actively in setting up the very structures to destroy public education. They have every level of government—federal, state and local—assisting them.
On January 23, 2017, a bill sponsored by the Republican congressman from Iowa, Steve King, was introduced to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. While having little chance of passing now, the bill gives an idea of what the most rabid anti-public-school forces would like to see.
A summary the Choices in Education Act of 2017 on Congress.gov states:
“This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.”
The bill sets up an education voucher program whereby the federal government funds block grants to states for distribution to parents who elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.
The role of the courts
Right-wing demagogues like Trump present the federal courts as a bastion of liberalism and routinely denounce the courts for “legislating from the bench.” In reality, the courts are a bastion of the capitalist state and follow the lead of the ruling class, in education as on every other issue. When public school advocates go to court to try to defend education, they find the courts rule to advance the privatization agenda. While there continue to be numerous lawsuits against voucher programs, the courts have ruled overwhelmingly to support them, as described in the examples below.
Ruling: There is no fundamental right to education guaranteed in the Constitution:
Texas: The Supreme Court made a significant decision related to education in 1972 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The San Antonio Independent School District in Texas was funded in part by local property taxes, as were many school districts. The District sued the state on behalf of its students, arguing that since property taxes were relatively low in the area, students at the public schools were being underserved compared to wealthier districts.
The district argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment mandates equal funding among school districts. But the Court ultimately rejected their claim, ruling that there is no fundamental right to education guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the Equal Protection Clause doesn’t require exact “equality or precisely equal advantages” among school districts.
Ruling: Using state funds to pay for religious schools does not violate state or federal constitutions:
Wisconsin: The Wisconsin constitution requires the state to provide uniform and free district schools to all children and states that “no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.” In a case challenging Wisconsin’s voucher program, Davis v. Grover, 1992, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated: “The legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty to provide for the basic education of our children. Their experimental attempts to improve upon that foundation in no way denies any student the opportunity to receive the basic education in the public school system.”
Ohio: The US Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002, reviewed Ohio’s program to decide if it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” More than 90 percent of the financial aid was going to parents with students in religious schools. The court’s ruling upheld Ohio’s voucher program in Cleveland.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”
Nevada: Most private schools in Nevada are run by religious institutions and include religious curriculum. Nevada was the first state to pass a law allowing any parent to remove a child from public school and take tax dollars with them to pay for private or parochial school. Nevada’s constitution does not allow public funds of any kind to be used for sectarian purposes.
However, Las Vegas District Court ruled in 2016 that the program did not violate the constitution: “The state has no influence or control over how any parent makes his or her genuine and independent choice” to spend that money, the judge wrote in his ruling. “Parents, and not the state, direct through their own independent decision the funds to religious education schools.”
Education is a social right
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are making sure the elites can accomplish their goals for education. Trump has said that public schools “allow the progressives in the Department of Education to indoctrinate, not educate, our kids. What they are doing does not fit the American model of governance. I am totally against these programs and the Department of Education.” DeVos has said her goal is to displace public schools from the center of communities, so that religious institutions can resume their rightful role.
The teachers’ unions, which were built in the course of major struggles to defend and expand public education, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, have suffered the fate of all the other so-called labor organizations in America. They have become nothing more than business operations, run by a privileged layer of bureaucratic officials, who rake in huge salaries, administer billion-dollar pension and benefit funds, and willingly support charter schools and other privatization efforts providing the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) and their local affiliates can still collect dues from the underpaid, superexploited teachers whom they hire.
An affordable, high-quality education is a social right of every working-class child and youth, but this right is being destroyed by the operation of the profit system. The struggle to defend education means a struggle against capitalism. Parents, teachers, and students, and every section of the working class must take up the fight to defend the right to an education, against the capitalist class, its political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and their servants in the unions. This means building a political movement of working people based on a socialist perspective.