The confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos provided an inordinate amount of drama: guns and grizzlies, an all-night talkathon on the Senate floor, and Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote — and with good reason.
DeVos, now confirmed as secretary of Education, is not just another inexperienced member of the president’s Cabinet. She is an ideologue with a singular educational passion — replacing our system of democratically controlled public schools with a universal voucher program that privileges private and religious ones.
If you care about our public schools and our democracy, you should be worried.
Every state constitution enshrines the right to a free education for all children, and the U.S. Supreme Court has long upheld this right. In its landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the high court noted that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” It went on to recognize its role in a democratic society, calling education “the very foundation of good citizenship.”
Given the controversy surrounding DeVos, Republicans initially may go easy in pushing school vouchers. But beware the bait and switch, the seemingly reasonable initiative that disguises radical change.
For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.
Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause.
That was the bait. The first “switch” came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.
Conservatives have consistently expanded the program, especially when Republicans controlled the state government. (Vouchers have never been put to a public vote in Wisconsin.) Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.
Voucher schools are private schools that have applied for a state-funded program that pays tuition for some or all of its student body. Even if every single student at a school receives a publicly funded voucher, as is the case in 22 of Milwaukee’s schools, that school is still defined as private.
Because they are defined as “private,” voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.
Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination.
I attended Catholic schools, and believe that this country’s long-standing defense of religious liberty is a hallmark of our democracy. But the voucher program has distorted this all-important concept of religious freedom.
In the guise of governmental noninterference in religious matters, the voucher program allows private schools to use public dollars to proselytize and teach church doctrine that is at odds with public policy — for instance, that women must be submissive to men, that homosexuality is evil, that birth control is a sin, and that creationism is scientifically sound.
Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy. And we aren’t talking about insignificant amounts of money. Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating. This year alone, the tab is some $248 million.
For more than 25 years, conservatives have used the seductive rhetoric of “choice” to blur the difference between public and private schools. It has been a shrewd move. Individual choice has long been considered a component of liberty.
Used appropriately, choice can help ensure that public education is sensitive to the varying needs and preferences of students and families. But when it comes to voucher schools, it’s clear that “choice” is also code for funneling tax dollars away from public schools and into private and religious schools.
No one doubts our public school systems have deep-seated problems. But the solution is to fix them, not abandon them. Our public schools are the only institutions with the commitment, the capacity, and the legal obligation to teach all children.
With DeVos’ confirmation, the entire country now must answer this question: If public education is an essential bedrock of our democracy, why are we undermining it?
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee based reporter and the author of “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City” (The New Press, 2013).
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