With Betsy DeVos in as US Secretary of Education, we know our public schools are not safe. A new administration should have come in ready to do away with high-stakes testing and other punitive policies and jumped right in to use the Secretary’s power – and budget in the billions of dollars – as a force for the most academically rich, culturally grounded, child-centered and, of course, equitable schools we can as a nation imagine.
Instead, we see a Secretary eager to use the power of her office to impoverish the public’s schools by robbing them of our tax dollars, giving them to private schools. Betsy DeVos wants our public dollars to leave our children’s classrooms and fly across town into the pockets of people who run schools but for some reason can’t make them financially viable on their own. Religious schools (in her case, Christian ones), corporate-run charter chains, independent private schools – these are the folks who want a handout from the government! Education “welfare”?
We can call it theft, misappropriation, corporate welfare, or de-democratizing. Betsy DeVos calls these cash transfers “vouchers,” “freedom scholarships,” “market payments.”
Vouchers by whatever name will take money out of our public schools, making them weaker and – surprise! – vulnerable to closure or take over by private interests. The president’s proposed budget takes billions of federal dollars away from even basic services to put into vouchers – voucher programs that states may have to go along with to get other federal dollars they desperately need in such areas as special education. And many Republican governors and state legislatures are voting on voucher bills this very month (including, my Texas neighbors, right now in Austin).
“Vouchers” sound neutral; “freedom scholarships” sound generous. How can we explain to our friends, our legislators, and our members of Congress how dangerous vouchers are?
A teacher can tell us! Mercedes K.Schneider is a public school teacher in Louisiana, a careful researcher, and writer who can explain the most complicated policies in clear prose even a legislator can understand! Her new book is here just in time to give to your member of Congress or state representative before they get sucked into thinking vouchers are inevitable, vouchers “worked” in Michigan (they didn’t), vouchers help poor kids (no). SchoolChoice: The End of Public Education?(Teachers College Press, 2016) traces vouchers to their roots in Southern resistance to desegregation: if white families could take their local school tax dollars to private schools not under the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, they could keep their kids in all-white schools – and at the public’s expense.
Schneider shows vouchers to be fundamentally aimed at destroying democracy, starting with Milton Friedman’s goal of replacing public institutions (the public’s institutions) by private players in a market where “competition” would be the only form of regulation. And private interests would have no obligation to collective governance. Her section on “choice” is especially compelling: Schneider shows that when tax dollars – and kids – go to voucher and charter schools, it’s the schools, not the parents and children, who have the power of “choice”: to include, to exclude, to do less than advertised. Not good for children, not good for the community, and definitely not consistent with our democracy.
Get Schneider’s book today – for you, your teachers and school board, your policy folks, your local library! Keep our dollars in our classrooms. Anyone who wants to start a private school should try it; but raise your own money. The rest of us have already committed our tax dollars to the public’s schools.