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Betsy DeVos’s ‘Voucherland’ Spells Disaster For Public Schools

Above photo: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivers remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 9, 2020. Tia Dufour.

It’s a place where private religious schools can get their hands on piles of public money and parents are left on their own.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, sensing perhaps the need to reaffirm her stamp on education policy, recently gave a speech at an education roundtable at Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan. The Washington Post called her remarks an “anti-government polemic” that reasserted one of her long-held beliefs: that families, rather than the federal government, should be the “sovereign sphere” for deciding how to spend public money for education.

DeVos also made a plug for her Education Freedom Scholarship Initiative, which would provide $5 billion in federal tax credits that states could use to create school voucher programs.

As a devotee of school vouchers, DeVos is unrivaled. She has pushed for voucher programs throughout her many years of school choice advocacy, and she’s made vouchers a policy imperative during her tenure as Education Secretary. And while in the past there might have been some question about what a voucher system would look like, we don’t have to guess any more. We’ve already been shown that future, a few pieces at a time.

Take college loans.

College loans are similar to vouchers in that they make colleges more widely available to all. But one significant difference is that, unlike vouchers (which function as grants), college loans must be repaid. Despite this downside, the loans’ attractiveness and availability have created a special market for predatory colleges, whose business model is based on enrolling students rather than educating them.

Examples of these predatory institutions abound. Consider the Center for Excellence in Higher Education chain, where recruiters can make six-figure incomes but its teachers are only paid $22 an hour. Schools like these leave students with huge debt and few employment prospects.

And though there is a process to allow for loan forgiveness for students who have been bilked, DeVos’s department has erected a mass of barriers that make it nearly impossible to get an application approved. These hard-to-jump-through hoops are so egregious that U.S. District Judge William Alsup— after ruling against DeVos for rejecting 16,000 applications in a single day—  called them “disturbingly Kafkaesque.”

DeVos has been repeatedly called to task over her handling of student debt forgiveness, but when discussing another such case (the failed Corinthian chain) she declared that folks wanted to offer “blanket forgiveness” and that is “just not right.”

For DeVos, the free market is the only way to regulate schools and put fraudsters out of business.

She has compared non-public schools to Ubers or food trucks, implying that these schools offer a better, more streamlined version of public education. That analogy, however, only works if you imagine giving a food truck all your lunch money for a year up front, or hiring your Uber driver for a pre-paid year.

Also, what happens if a family discovers that its voucher has gone to a bogus school? Will there be some sort of regulatory oversight to close those schools or help the family recover their voucher money?

In DeVos’s Voucherland, it’s the businesses running the schools that require protection; the families that she wants to “empower” are on their own.

In cities and states where school vouchers are already in place, the majority are used by parents to enroll their children in private religious schools. Those schools often just teach whatever they want and use textbooks that ignore or argue against history and science, as the rest of the world understands these subjects.

Religious private schools also reserve the right to discriminate based on their own beliefs. The Orlando Sentinel has reported on schools in Florida that fire teachers for being gay, and that forbid or reject LGBTQ+ students. Each of these schools accept taxpayer dollars in the form of vouchers.

And DeVos, way back in her confirmation hearing, refused to agree that all schools that receive public federal funds should be held to the same standards of accountability. She also refused to state that the government should make sure schools follow federal civil rights laws, such as the requirements that ensure children with disabilities receive special education and related services.

After she was confirmed, DeVos ran a safety commission to study school shootings, which determined that the problem was Black kids, not guns. She has even made an annual event out of cutting support for Special Olympics from the budget.

DeVos has long argued that she puts students and families over institutions, but that appears to only apply to public institutions. Students who are not straight, not white, not Christian, and not without special needs—and their families—are on their own in a privatized education marketplace.

In the 1960s and 1970s, certain parts of the country responded to integration orders by setting up segregation academies—special private schools that let white folks keep their kids away from “those people’s” children. By setting up segregation academies, local boards could cut school taxes, leaving more money for white folks to pay academy tuition and less for the already-underfunded public schools. This system, in effect, shifted funds from public schools to private ones.

The modern version of this is the tax credit scholarship programs. In these voucher-like programs, wealthy people can make a charitable contribution to a private school and count it against their tax liability. If they give $10,000, that’s $10,000 less that they must pay in taxes.

Not only can wealthy folks—and, in some cases, corporations—fund their favorite private school, but they can help starve the government at the same time.

So that’s Betsy DeVos’s vision for a future Voucherland.

For privately owned and operated schools (and particularly for the struggling Catholic school world), Voucherland is a place where they can finally get their hands on piles of taxpayer dollars, with their ability to operate as they wish unhampered by any rules and regulations.

For parents and students, Voucherland is a government that says, “Here’s your voucher. Good luck, caveat that emptor, and don’t look to us for any help.”

You may think that this is all immaterial now that DeVos is headed back to the life of a humble civilian billionaire. But these are the things she has spent decades fighting for, and she is not going to stop fighting for them now that she will soon be a private citizen again.

DeVos’s ideas are not off the table. Voucherland is not a lost dream. DeVos is far more comfortable as a very wealthy activist than she ever was as a government official.  State by state, case by case, its advocates will keep fighting for a country with an exclusive, Christian,  unaccountable, selective private education system for which all taxpayers foot the bill.

Peter Greene: English teacher for a few years. Blogger at Curmudgucation.

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