Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has spent a lifetime fighting to siphon public money into private schools. Described as “the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement.” Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick DeVos, who inherited his father’s Amway fortune, have poured millions of dollars into lobbying for school voucher programs across the country.
Since 2009, Betsy DeVos has been the chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the nation’s leading school choice advocacy group, as well as the group’s electoral arm, which supports candidates who endorse school vouchers and charter schools.
If you want to see how truly dishonest American Federation for Children is about its goals, take a look at the group’s "2012 Election Impact Report," revealed in a column by Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The smiling faces of African American and Latino children beam from the pages of the report. Billing itself as "the nation's voice for educational choice," the American Federation for Children pushes forward students of color as the beneficiaries of its lobbying work, but the politicians they support are not exactly heroes of the civil-rights movement. You'd never guess it from all those smiling black and brown faces that the biggest recipients of AFC funds are Republican state legislators who are busy enacting plans to slash funding for public schools and, at the same time, redirect tax dollars to private-school families—many of whom have kids who've never attended public school.
When former governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson started the nation's first private-school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 it was, from the beginning, a racially divisive issue. Vouchers pitted African American parents who wanted to get their kids out of crumbling schools against the teachers unions, civil libertarians, and public-school advocates who objected to sending tax money to private schools, including religious schools. Twenty-five years later, vouchers have not proven to be a ticket out for poor kids of color.
Voucher students in Milwaukee have lower test scores in reading and math than their public-school peers. The ACLU is still concerned that tax dollars are going to teach voucher students that creationism trumps evolution in some voucher-funded religious schools. Fly-by-night voucher schools have popped up in corner stores and rundown strip malls to take advantage of school-voucher money in Wisconsin.
This educational dystopia is the plan Betsy DeVos would like to take nationwide.
Worst of all is the whole budget picture: public schools taking a massive hit, even as the state pours tax dollars into private schools
When Walker lifted the income cap on vouchers and expanded the program it became clear that this is not a program designed to help disadvantaged, minority kids. When the governor expanded Milwaukee's voucher program to the city of Racine, half of all new voucher recipients were students who had never attended public school.
Lutheran and Catholic schools around the state favor vouchers. Their enrollment jumped when Walker eliminated enrollment limits and raised the income cap for vouchers to $67,000 a year (and once a family qualifies for a voucher, no matter how much money the parents make, the kids remain voucher-eligible). Well-to-do religious-school parents in Wisconsin received letters cheerfully touting the voucher expansion because it would give those parents a tuition break.
The bottom line: Families that never used the public schools, that are neither poor nor living in a neighborhood with a "failing school," can get taxpayer dollars to reduce their tuition, even as the public schools are forced to slash programs and keep per-pupil spending flat.
Forget the school privatizers' misleading catch phrase—that school choice is "the civil rights issue of our time." The real question of the moment is whether we will continue to have public schools, or a pay-as-you-go system that means you get the education you can afford.
That's the fundamental question being debated as Trump appoints Betsy DeVos.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive magazine.