While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the “Year of School Choice” by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos.
Anyone who was thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again.
In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.
This post looks at some of the latest state actions. It was written by Carol Burris, a former prizewinning principal in New York and now executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group the Network for Public Education, which opposes charter schools and the privatization of public education.
By Carol Burris
Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.
A flurry of proposed school privatization legislation appearing on state dockets has been the pattern for several years. What is different this year is their success, albeit limited. In prior years, few, if any, reached the finish line. So what is different about 2021?
Paul Petersen, a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms, who is a government professor at Harvard University and editor of the pro-school choice journal Education Next, blamed unions and school boards.
“After aggressive unions and bewildered school boards shut down schools for a year, the choice bandwagon has begun to roll,” he opined in the Wall Street Journal. Jeanne Allen of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform, who has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools, echoes the same claim.
But if their agenda-driven theory were true, we would expect to see the greatest successes in passing legislation in those states with the fewest schools open for in-person instruction. Yet no legislation has come up in California, Hawaii or Maryland — states with the smallest proportion of open schools.
Instead, it appears that the opposite is true — red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed. Here are a few examples that explain what is really happening behind the scenes.
The state recently enacted the “Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program,” probably the most deceptive name for a voucher program yet. It gives a 100 percent tax credit to individuals or businesses who contribute to a fund redistributed to eligible families for private school tuition.
Calling it a “philanthropic investment” is a farce — the donor gets every penny back. Ironically, the bill enacts what the right-wing despises — a redistribution of wealth. Money is moved out of the taxpayer-funded state treasury to pay tuition to private schools for low-income families.
School closures in Arkansas are hardly the reason the bill passed.
According to Burbio.com, which has created an in-person school index by state, the state’s in-person school index since at least February is 96.8 percent out of a possible 100 percent. Arkansas, like many Southern states, broadly reopened schools last fall. There is no evidence that families pushed for this tax credit except for one: the Walton family, which has spent millions of dollars to support alternatives to public schools.
When an earlier voucher bill, HB 1371, failed on the House floor, Arkansas lobbyist Laurie Lee posted the names of legislators who opposed the bill, blaming school superintendents and teachers, along with legislators who voted “no” for its demise.
Lee is the founder and owner of Trace Strategies, a lobbying firm, and the chairperson of the nonprofit Reform Alliance Inc., which according to its latest 990 IRS form (2018), paid Trace Strategies $250,000. The year prior (2017), the Reform Alliance paid the lobbying firm $180,000. The tax documents should list this payment as a related party transaction; they do not.
Who funds the Reform Alliance? The taxpayers of Arkansas, for one. In addition, the Reform Alliance runs the state’s other voucher program, the State Succeeds Scholarship Program, as a pass-through, no doubt receiving a fee. The other source of funding for the Alliance is the Walton Family Foundation. During those two tax years, for which 990s are available (2017 and 2018), the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,664,280 to the nonprofit.
And then there is the nonprofit Arkansans for Education Reform. Jim Walton serves on its board. In 2016, the Walton Family Foundation gave that organization $325,769 in addition to a personal donation from Jim Walton himself, tax documents show. That year, Trace Strategies, Lee’s lobbying firm, was paid $205,756 from that nonprofit. In 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave an additional $350,000 to the same nonprofit with tax-exempt status, whose mission is clearly to lobby for “reform.”
After the House voucher bill failed, the state Senate quickly introduced SB 680 and passed it with lightning speed. It was on the governor’s desk in 10 days.
An additional factor in the bill’s success is the 2020 election. Arkansas Republicans gained seats in 2020, now holding 78 of the 100 legislative seats. Given that the destruction of public schools — which they call “government schools” — is now a priority for the Republican Party, it is remarkable that the first bill failed.
The state legislature enacted a charter school law in 1995. More than 25 years later, it has only five charter schools in the entire state. Districts authorize charter schools; therefore, they are located in communities that want them.
But that policy of community control of charters is anathema to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the school privatization movement. It prevents statewide for-profit online charter schools and inhibits the growth of charter chains. Therefore, this spring, the state legislature passed a law giving the State Loan and Investment Board the authority to authorize charter schools.
Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, who did not sign the bill, characterized it as “a political document.” He noted: “The law allows charter schools to potentially be exempt from teaching standards requirements and oversight from the State Board of Education. This bill seemingly makes it easier for charters to be established outside the state’s rigorous educational parameters.” He also wondered if the bill would stand up to constitutional scrutiny.
Apparently none of these issues bothered the Wyoming legislature. So who was behind this bill that has no teaching standards requirements and oversight? Not parents unhappy that schools are closed. According to Burbio.com, 100 percent of Wyoming schools are open for full-time instruction five days a week. The speaker of the House and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools wanted more charters in the state. The alliance bragged about how it lobbied for its passage after a “high-quality” charter chain was not able to open.
Gordon hopes the legislature will fix the bill, but that is highly unlikely.
Until 2019, West Virginia was one of a few states in which taxpayers supported only public schools. That year, a charter schools bill passed that allowed district authorization of a few charters. It was, of course, the camel’s nose under the tent.
This year, the legislature passed House Bill 2012, which opens the door to virtual charter schools, expands the number of charter schools and allows a statewide organization to authorize charter schools, removing exclusive authority from districts.
But privatization did not stop with the expansion of charter schools. House Bill 2013 established a neo-voucher Education Savings Account (ESA) program — the most expansive and arguably irresponsible program in the nation.
ESA programs give parents public funds for not attending public schools by putting funds on a debit card, which parents can use for expenses related to home-schooling materials, laptops, tutoring, horseback riding lessons, therapy and private school tuition. ESAs in other states such as Arizona have resulted in lax oversight and fraudulent spending.
The bill is also an invitation for publicly funded discrimination. The West Virginia bill prohibits discrimination based only on race or disability. Discrimination based on religion is allowed. And voucher schools are free to ban gay and transgender students, as well as students with behavioral or academic challenges. The law explicitly states that private schools do not have to alter their enrollment criteria to receive the public money.
Funds can go to home-schoolers. Tutors do not need to have credentials to be paid; the only criteria is that they not be a member of the immediate family. Parents, then, could swap “tutoring” duties with each other to collect the $4,500 payment per child.
This unrestricted voucher program — praised by the Indiana-based Ed Choice organization as the most extensive in the nation — will, opponents say, result in a depletion of resources to the state’s already underfunded public schools.
“You’re going to potentially remove enough funds from a local education agency to seriously cripple their ability to provide a thorough and efficient education, as described by the [state] constitution,” said Del. Ed Evans, a Democrat who opposed the bill.
Like the two states above, the massive move toward privatization had nothing to do with anger regarding public school closures. After the Christmas holiday surge, West Virginia had a Burbio rating of over 78 percent, higher than most states. Its rating is now 100 percent.
So why did these bills pass? Jay O’Neal, a teacher and public school advocate, has watched the legislature unsuccessfully push school privatization for years. O’Neal said the biggest change was the 2020 election. West Virginia’s legislature went from a Republican majority to a Republican supermajority.
Covid-19 was also a factor, but not in the way portrayed by Petersen and Allen. Previously, parent and teacher groups were able to converge on the West Virginia Capitol building to visit with legislators and stage protests. This year that could not happen.
“The capitol was completely closed off except for people with appointments on ‘official’ business, so there would have been no way to protest,” O’Neal said. “And with the supermajority, it felt hopeless. It would mean flipping 20-30 votes, and that seemed pretty much impossible.”
Not all voices were silent, however. All of the following had a lobbying presence in West Virginia: former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Excellence in Education Action; Stride (the new name of the online for-profit K12 Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice, Inc.; Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative advocacy group long funded by Charles Koch and his late brother, David Koch; and ACCEL, the for-profit charter chain led by Ron Packard, the founder and former head of K12 Inc.
The shutdown of the West Virginia Capitol building due to covid-19 was also a factor in Kentucky, where an ESA bill, to be financed through tax credits, was shoehorned into a public school choice bill after voucher language in a previous bill had died.
According to public school advocate Gay Alderman: “Very few people wanted this legislation, and if you pressed them, you would find they were confused about the harm it causes. But because of pandemic rules, the thousands of us who were opposed were shut out at every turn and unable to be seen or heard.”
As in West Virginia, charter and voucher lobbyists were there. In Kentucky, Stride (formerly K12) spent $3,250 per month lobbying for charter schools, according to a state document. The for-profit chain National Heritage Academies spent $1,000 per month lobbying for charter school expansion, a state document shows.
Americans for Prosperity has spent $56,921 in Kentucky so far this year on four issues, including school choice, according to state documents. Florida’s Excellence in Education in Action has already spent $3,552 lobbying for school choice legislation. And Edchoice Kentucky, Inc. (a local branch of the national organization), has spent $13,438 so far this year lobbying on “any issues relating to tax credits, education, education funding.”
There is no doubt that some parents were upset when their school was closed for in-person instruction. But blaming unions and school boards obscures the real reasons for the success of those bills that made it through, veiling the long-term goal of the school privatization movement.
The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills. As Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for the privatization cause, said, the long-term goal is “to undo public education — not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”