Oped: Betsy DeVos' war on public schools

Ruth Conniff
Tribune News Service
  • Since 2009, Betsy DeVos has been the chair of the nation's leading school-choice advocacy group.
  • Fly-by-night voucher schools have popped up to take advantage of voucher money in some states.
  • Will we continue to have public schools, or a system in which you get the education you can afford?

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for secretary of Education, has spent a lifetime fighting to siphon public money into private schools.

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Trump has chosen charter school advocate DeVos as Education Secretary in his administration. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Described as "the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement," she — along with her husband, Dick DeVos, who is heir to the Amway fortune — has 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, or AFC, the nation's leading school-choice advocacy group.

Billing itself as "the nation's voice for educational choice," the American Federation for Children has an electoral arm that supports pro-school-choice politicians. The group's 2012 Election Impact Report featured charming photos of black and Latino kids, as though these kids were the beneficiaries of its lobbying work. But the politicians the group supports are not exactly heroes of the civil-rights movement.

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, redirecting tax dollars to private-school families — many of whom have kids who have never attended public school.

When former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson started the nation's first private-school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990, the plan pitted African-American parents who wanted to get their kids out of crumbling schools against teachers' unions, civil libertarians and public-school advocates who objected to sending tax money to private schools, including religious schools.

Nearly three decades 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 creationism in 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.

When Wisconsin 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 saw their enrollment jump when Wisconsin eliminated caps on the number of students who could get vouchers and raised the income cap to 300 percent of the federal poverty line.

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 facing a budget crisis.

Forget the school privatizers' misleading catch phrase, that school choice is "the civil rights issue of our time."

The real question 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.

This fundamental question is being debated right as Trump attempts to appoint Betsy DeVos.

— Ruth Conniff is editor in chief of The Progressive Magazine.