Republicans want to kill the Dept. of Ed and privatize education. Billionaires are helping them.

Republicans want to kill the Dept. of Ed and privatize education. Billionaires are helping them.

By The 19th

July 11, 2024

Originally published by The 19th.

In the fall, the Department of Education will mark 45 years since its inception, but that anniversary could be its last if Donald Trump gets his way. The federal agency is one of several he’s vowed to slash if reelected president.

“We’re going to end education coming out of Washington, D.C.,” he said in a campaign video last year. “We’re going to close it up — all those buildings all over the place and people that in many cases hate our children. We’re going to send it all back to the states.”

On Monday, the Republican National Committee approved a draft party platform ahead of its convention next week that supports Trump’s call to “return education to the states.” Among other aims, the platform pushes for increasing parents’ rights, championing school prayer and withholding federal funding to schools that engage in “gender indoctrination” or promote “critical race theory,” mirroring Trump’s proposed education policy.

Well before the release of the draft platform, Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky advocated for disbanding the Department of Education. Project 2025, a set of policy recommendations for a second Trump term released by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation not only supports eliminating the agency and removing LGBTQ+ protections and diversity curricula from schools but also privatizing education.

State lawmakers have already enacted policies that undermine and underfund public education, their critics say. That’s no coincidence, but part of a scheme to destroy the nation’s public school system, according to a new report — “By the Wealthy, for the Wealthy: The Coordinated Attacks on Public Education in the United States” —  released June 25 by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Over the past decade, there has been a coordinated effort on the part of right-wing billionaires to undermine, dismantle and sabotage our nation’s public schools and to privatize our education system,” Sanders, an independent from Vermont who ran for president as a Democrat, said in a statement. “That is absolutely unacceptable. We can no longer tolerate billionaires and multinational corporations receiving massive tax breaks and subsidies while children in America are forced to go to under-staffed, under-resourced and under-funded public schools.”

State funding on public schools has stagnated over the past decade, rising just 1 percent annually on average, adjusting for inflation, according to the report, written by the majority staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), which Sanders chairs. Meanwhile, state spending on tax breaks and subsidies for private schools has spiked by 408 percent.

In Republican-led state legislatures, officials in recent years have intensified efforts to scale up private school voucher programs. Often characterized by their proponents as “school choice” for economically disadvantaged families, vouchers benefit the wealthy most of all, the HELP report found, leaving queer, rural, low-income, disabled and BIPOC youth and families vulnerable to discrimination, since private schools can curate their student populations.

“On this 70th anniversary year of Brown v. Board of Education, let us recommit to creating an education system that works for all of our people, not just the wealthy few,” Sanders said, referencing the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that deemed segregated schools unconstitutional.

Eleven states and Washington, D.C., offer traditional private school vouchers that help families cover some of their children’s private K-12 education tuition with state tax-funded subsidies, according to the HELP report. One consequence of vouchers has been the exacerbation of segregation: Following the Brown v. Board ruling, vouchers enabled White families who opposed integrated schools to send their children to private institutions colloquially known as “segregation academies.” In the process, integrated public schools lost funding, a pattern that persists today.

The Arkansas LEARNS Act, a 2023 law, created an expansive private school voucher program and included an executive order restricting class discussions about race that detractors say will make it harder to achieve equity among the state’s student population. Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which advocates for social and economic justice, is one of the legislation’s critics.

“Our organization started working around diversity and inclusion and desegregation of public schools,” he said. “Here this legislation comes that’s going to make it harder for us to talk about diversity and inclusion and Black history in schools while it’s financing a voucher and charter system that you can literally see has led to the resegregation of our students. It’s really distressing that we’re making these major steps backwards on racial equity.”

The LEARNS Act has triggered lawsuits challenging its “critical race theory” ban and alleging that it violates the Arkansas constitution by funneling tax funds designated for public education to private education.

Across the country, vouchers come in different forms, with some financially incentivizing businesses. Twenty-one states give voucher tax credits to businesses that donate to nonprofits covering private school expenses for students, according to the HELP report. Corporations are also making use of tax loopholes in states that let them claim a federal business expense deduction along with voucher tax credits.

During a meeting with Black reporters in February, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona discussed the impact privatized education could have on marginalized youth.

“I’m hopeful that the American people see that there’s people that are looking at education as an investment, and others that want to decimate it. It’s that simple,” said Cardona, who runs the agency responsible for giving students equal access to education. “Think about Black and Brown students who are already underserved. Think about that child with autism, that child with behavioral issues — you think that private school is going to want that kid there?”

Private schools may also discriminate along gender lines, namely by promoting sex-based stereotypes, implementing anti-LGBTQ+ policies or denying admission to children of LGBTQ+ parents who have vouchers, according to the HELP report.

School choice is not a practice that Cardona views as fundamentally hostile to public education. Within public school systems, families can and do engage in school choice. Cardona, for instance, attended a public technical high school instead of his neighborhood school, he said.

“That’s my choice,” he said. “If I go to a private school that is very selective and chooses who they let in and out, I don’t believe public education dollars should be funding that. But I think that’s what’s happening in many of our states, because there’s been underfunding in [public] education. So now they’re pointing fingers at the school saying, ‘Look how bad it is.’ Because you don’t fund it. Because you’re paying teachers less, two times less than the UPS driver. You can make more money at an Amazon warehouse than you can as a paraeducator in these districts working with the neediest kids.”

The youth benefiting from private school vouchers are not the economically disadvantaged students that voucher proponents tout, the report found. Instead, the overwhelming majority — 65 to 95 percent — of private school voucher recipients never attended public school, according to data from states including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s 2023 analysis of voucher tax credit data provided by state revenues agencies arrived at a similar conclusion. It found that 99 percent of Louisiana families using these credits have incomes of over $200,000 per year. Eighty-seven percent of the Virginia families claiming these credits belong to this income bracket, while 60 percent of Arizona families do.

Affluent students are attending private school with subsidized tuition thanks to a select group of billionaires powering organizations such as the Bradley Foundation, the DeVos Family Foundation and the Koch Foundation, according to the HELP report. Moreover, Richard Uihlein of Uline, Bernard Marcus of Home Depot and Jeff Yass of Susquehanna International Group have helped to bankroll the School Freedom Fund, a political action committee that has worked to remove state lawmakers who are against private school vouchers.

The study also found that the Bradley Foundation spent $15.8 million to push education privatization, among other conservative priorities, in multiple states. The American Federation for Children, started by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, spent $12.7 million to expand private school voucher programs and drive out state lawmakers opposed to private education subsidies. American Encore, funded by the Koch Foundation, has routed hundreds of thousands of dollars to gubernatorial races and ballot measures nationwide, including over $1.4 million to elect former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who spearheaded the country’s first universal private school voucher in 2022.

The nationwide movement to expand private school vouchers coincides with the escalation of  culture wars in classrooms. Although polling over the past 25 years indicates that most parents are content with their child’s public education, ideological disputes over the teaching of race, sexuality, gender and history attempt to foment distrust in public schools, privatization opponents argue.

“Whether it’s DEI being taken apart, Title I being taken apart — this is all a strategy to destroy public education,” Cardona said, referring to the federal program that provides funding to schools that predominantly serve students from low-income households.

Tennessee State Rep. Aftyn Behn in March raised similar concerns to The 19th about the role of vouchers in her state. As Tennessee lawmakers advanced legislation that would require students to watch a “pro-life” fetal development video, they also tried to pass legislation for a private school voucher program. That bill did not make it out of the legislature this session but is likely to be reintroduced in the near future, given Gov. Bill Lee’s advocacy for it.

“They’re trying to push an anti-abortion curriculum at the same time as passing a major voucher bill that would allow private schools to just run rampant,” Behn said. “It’s important to note that they are not only tackling this at the granular level of suddenly trying to change the curriculum by adding this video but also trying to dismantle the public education system and push through what is White Christian nationalism within our school system.”

Cardona said he expects public school teachers to be grossly underpaid and students to be greatly underserved if states continue to subsidize private education. In private schools, educators don’t have to be credentialed, he said. States subsidizing private school tuition also do not require them to meet the same standards that public schools do, a disparity discussed by groups such as the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The organization recently tried to get an educational amendment on the state ballot that would’ve required private schools to have the same quality standards as public schools, among other stipulations, but it did not collect enough signatures for the effort by the July 5 deadline.

He said his group plans to refile the legislation later this year, arguing that an educational amendment is needed because the LEARNS Act only created “nominal standards” for private schools receiving public school voucher money.

“They’re vastly weaker than those for public schools,” he said. “Studies of statewide voucher programs show that they lead to declining student test scores.”

Top private schools typically have limited slots for students, so families who receive vouchers often end up at mediocre or even low-quality private schools, Kopsky said. He echoed research cited by the National Coalition for Public Education that vouchers don’t improve student performance, though older research conducted by University of Arkansas scholars found that voucher recipients in Washington, D.C., were more likely to graduate from high school than students without vouchers.

Since private schools can earn accreditation from different agencies, Kopsky said, it is difficult to compare one with another or a private school with a public school. Families, then, may not be able to exercise school choice in an informed manner.

The money states are devoting to vouchers would be better used on solving the teacher shortage, investing in community schools, offering free college and supporting early childhood education, the HELP report contends. In Arkansas, Kopsky said that spending on vouchers has hurt the state’s public pre-kindergarten programs. In parts of the state, it can be difficult for preschoolers to participate in early childhood education programs, which is why the Arkansas Public Policy Panel’s educational amendment called for free preschool access.

“The only way you can achieve a quality education in today’s world is to have high-quality early childhood education,” Kopsky said. “If you’re in rural Arkansas, there’s not really access in a lot of places for 3- or 4-year-olds. Access to an essential tool for learning shouldn’t be dependent on your family’s income or where they live.”

As recently as 2011, when an early voucher bill was introduced in Arkansas, the legislation lacked statewide support. Kopsky said that many rural residents viewed vouchers as “essentially a tax subsidy for an urban family to go to a private school,” institutions scarce in farm country.

Since then, many legislators have entered office with the backing of billionaires, Kopsky said. “These right-wingers now want to weaken our education standards so that they can cut education funding, so they can fund tax cuts for those same billionaires,” he said. “Money shouldn’t really dictate fundamental core democracy values like these, and sadly, it does.”

Republicans want to kill the Dept. of Ed and privatize education. Billionaires are helping them.


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