Since the 2010 elections, voucher bills have popped up in legislatures around the nation. From Pennsylvania to Indiana to Florida, state governments across the country have introduced bills that would take money from public schools and use it to send students to private and religious institutions.
Vouchers have always been a staple of the right-wing agenda. Like previous efforts, this most recent push for vouchers is led by a network of conservative think tanks, PACs, Religious Right groups and wealthy conservative donors. But “school choice,” as they euphemistically paint vouchers, is merely a means to an end. Their ultimate goal is the total elimination of our public education system.
The decades-long campaign to end public education is propelled by the super-wealthy, right-wing DeVos family. Betsy Prince DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private military contractor Blackwater USA (now Xe), and wife of Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of Amway, the multi-tiered home products business.
[The goals of] conservative policy institutes founded beginning in the 1970s [that] get hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy families and foundations […] include privatizing social security, reducing government regulations, thwarting environmental policy, dismantling unions — and eliminating public schools.
But Americans don’t want their schools dismantled. So privatization advocates have recognized that it’s not politically viable to openly push for full privatization and have resigned themselves to incrementally dismantling public school systems. The think tanks’ weapon of choice is school vouchers.
Vouchers are funded with public school dollars but are used to pay for students to attend private and parochial (religious-affiliated) schools. The idea was introduced in the 1950s by the high priest of free-market fundamentalism, Milton Friedman, who also made the real goal of the voucher movement clear: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.” The quote is in a 1995 Cato Institute briefing paper titled “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”
The longest running voucher program in the country is the 20-year-old Milwaukee School Choice Program. Standardized testing shows 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. Cleveland’s voucher program has produced similar results.
Most Americans do not want their tax dollars to fund private and sectarian schools. Since 1966, 24 of 25 voucher initiatives have been defeated by voters, most by huge margins. Nevertheless, the pro-privatization battle continues, organized by an array of 527s, 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and political action committees. At the helm of this interconnected network is Betsy DeVos, the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement.
The DeVoses are top contributors to the Republican Party and have provided the funding for major Religious Right organizations. And they spent millions of their own fortune promoting the failed voucher initiative in Michigan in 2000, dramatically outspending their opposition. Sixty-eight percent of Michigan voters rejected the voucher scheme. Following this defeat, the DeVoses altered their strategy.
Instead of taking the issue directly to voters, they would support bills for vouchers in state legislatures. In 2002 Dick DeVos gave a speech on school choice at the Heritage Foundation. After an introduction by former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett, DeVos described a system of “rewards and consequences” to pressure state politicians to support vouchers.
Media materials for Betsy DeVos’ group All Children Matter, formed in 2003, claimed the organization spent $7.6 million in its first year, “impacting state legislative elections in 10 targeted states” and a won/loss record of 121/60.
Dick DeVos also explained to his Heritage Foundation audience that they should no longer use the term public schools, but instead start calling them “government schools.”
A significant forum that brings together free-market power brokers and Religious Right leaders is the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group that has met several times annually behind closed doors since 1981. Richard DeVos described CNP as bringing together the “donors and the doers.” This partnership gives the Religious Right access to major funders, including Richard Mellon Scaife, who are not social conservatives.
Many of the free-market think tanks are secular, but there is a trend toward merging free-market fundamentalism with right-wing religious ideology. The Acton Institute is described by religious historian Randall Balmer as an example of the merging of corporate interests with advocates of “dominion theology.” Dominionism is the belief that Christians must take control over societal and government institutions. The Acton Institute funds events featuring dominionist leaders including Gary North, who claims that the bible mandates free market capitalism or “Biblical Capitalism.”
Betsy DeVos has served on the board of Acton, which is also funded by Scaife, Bradley and Exxon Mobil. A shared goal of this unlikely group of libertarians and theocrats is their battle against environmental regulation. One of the Acton Institute fellows leads a group of Religious Right organizations called the Cornwall Alliance, which is currently marketing a DVD titled Resisting the Green Dragon. The pseudo-documentary describes global warming as a hoax and claims environmentalism is a cult attacking Christianity. Another shared goal of the free marketers and Christian dominionists is eradicating secular public education.
Betsy DeVos has announced that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are scheduled to speak at the National Policy Summit of the American Federation for Children on May 9. Walker wants to expand vouchers in Milwaukee despite the program’s failure, made clear by disappointing standardized test results. Walker’s response? To halt the testing. Pennsylvania voucher supporters have already taken care of the pesky issue of accountability by defeating an amendment that would require the students using vouchers to take standardized tests.
During the AFC’s summit, it’s doubtful there will be speeches about eradicating public education but there will certainly be public relations-produced media everywhere, showing the beautiful faces of the little children these voucher proponents are supposedly saving. And Betsy DeVos, the four-star general of the voucher wars, will continue to advance a stealth campaign against American communities and working families — the battle to eradicate public education.
These are just snippets of the article. I encourage you to read the entire thing.