ALEC Admits School Vouchers Are for Kids in Suburbia

School vouchers were never about helping poor, at-risk or minority students. But selling them as social mobility tickets was a useful fiction that for some twenty-five years helped rightwing ideologues and corporate backers gain bipartisan support for an ideological scheme designed to privatize public schools.

But the times they are a-changin'. Wisconsin is well on its way towards limitless voucher schools, and last month, Nevada signed into law a universal "education savings account" allowing parents to send their kids to private or religious schools, or even to homeschool them—all on the taxpayers' dime. On the federal level, a proposed amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have created a multi-billion-dollar-a-year voucher program was only narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate.

The American Federation for Children (AFC), chaired by Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, estimates that vouchers and voucher-like tax-credit schemes currently divert $1.5 billion of public money to private schools annually. But that is not enough. By expanding "pro-school choice legislative majorities" in state houses across the country the organization hopes that $5 billion a year will be siphoned out of public schools by 2020 and applied to for-profit and religious schools.

With vouchers gaining momentum nationwide, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is meeting in San Diego today, has decided to drop the pretense that vouchers have anything to do with social and racial equity, and is now pushing vouchers for the middle class—a project which, if pursued enough in numbers, will progressively erode the public school system and increase the segregation of students based on race and economic standing.

ALEC Comes Clean, Vouchers Are for the Middle Class

The agenda for this week's ALEC meeting includes a presentation entitled: “Problems in Suburbia: Why Middle-Class Students Need School Choice, Digital Learning and Better Options.”

Perhaps more importantly, ALEC's revisions to three of its "model" voucher bills make clear that it is changing focus from underserved inner-city schools to middle-class suburbia. The talking points at the end of the bills state:

  • "Legislators … should keep in mind the financial burden many middle-class families face in paying for private schools."
  • “The authors believe that all children from low- and middle-income families should receive public support for their education regardless of whether they are attending a public or private school."
  • “The authors do not adjust the amount granted to an ESA [Education Savings Account] student based upon the student's income because states do not adjust the public investment for a student attending a traditional public school or a charter based upon their household income.”

As if to further nail down the point that school vouchers are not about equity, ALEC also advises legislators against including language “banning discrimination in hiring.” But if they choose to do so, they should “take care not to interfere with the ability of religious institutions to hire individuals who share their religious beliefs.”

"Abolishing the Public School System"

ALEC is not the only organization coming clean on vouchers.

At the American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit held in New Orleans, lobbyist Scott Jensen—who, before being banned from Wisconsin politics for violating the public trust served as chief of staff to governor Tommy Thompson, and was a prime mover behind the first voucher program in the nation—admitted that vouchers were really all about “pursuing Milton Friedman’s free-market vision” even though the ideological agenda was nowadays sugarcoated with “a much more compelling message ... of social justice.”

So what exactly was the brave new world Milton Friedman envisioned when he first floated the idea of school vouchers? While lecturing rightwing state lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman jumped at the opportunity to explain what his vision was all about. It had nothing whatsoever to do with helping “indigent” children; no, he explained to thunderous applause, vouchers were all about “abolishing the public school system.”

Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:

If I were to ask everyone here, what would be your idea of the right way to conduct, to have an educational system constructed, you would say the ideal would be to have parents control and pay for their school's education, just as they pay for their food, their clothing and their housing. That, of course, would leave some indigent and problems of charity. Those should be handled as charity problems, not educational problems. The reason we cannot do that is because taxes are used to pay not for education, but for schools, for teachers.

How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you're not gonna to do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice, that you have to change the way government money is directed. Instead of it being used to finance schools and buildings, you should decide how much money you are willing to spend on each child and give that money, provide that money in the form of a voucher to the parents of the children so the parents can choose a school that they regard as best for their child.

Ditching the Marketing Plan

By shifting the focus from poor, minority children to the predominantly white middle class, ALEC has come full circle. Vouchers were first proposed in the 1950s as a way for white families to get around the desegregation resulting from the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision. ALEC first pitched vouchers to legislators in 1984 as a way to “introduce normal market forces" into education and to "dismantle the control and power of" teachers' unions. While there was a narrative of parent "empowerment" at that time, there was not even a passing mention of children—let alone minority children.

But when William Bennett joined Ronald Reagan's cabinet in 1985, vouchers soon gained a unique selling point. In the words of The Black Commentator:

Former Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett understood what was missing from the voucher political chemistry: minorities. If visible elements of the Black and Latino community could be ensnared in what was then a lily-white scheme, then the Right’s dream of a universal vouchers system to subsidize general privatization of education, might become a practical political project. More urgently, Bennett and other rightwing strategists saw that vouchers had the potential to drive a wedge between Blacks and teachers unions, cracking the Democratic Party coalition. In 1988, Bennett urged the Catholic Church to “seek out the poor, the disadvantaged…and take them in, educate them, and then ask society for fair recompense for your efforts”–vouchers. The game was on.

Conservative think tanks and advocacy groups across the nation soon launched massive whitewashing campaigns; they started churning out policy reports and books purporting to show how school vouchers would actually benefit minority students. Examples include: We Can Rescue Our Children: The Cure for Chicago's Public School Crisis (Heartland Institute, 1988) and Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City (Cato Institute, 1990).

By proposing schemes with vouchers weighted to boost racial diversity, or restricted to children from low-income families, the organizations pushing vouchers were able to kill two birds with one stone. They made them acceptable by obscuring the segregationist history, and, crucially, they could now cast themselves as the "new" civil rights movement.

In state after state, politicians were in on the trick. They would sign limited voucher programs into law as “civil rights” measures only to gradually expand the programs to higher-income white families. The Milwaukee program—the first in the country—was originally restricted to families learning less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level. But under Gov. Scott Walker, the income ceiling was recently upped to 300 percent. A married couple with two children can currently earn $78,647, which is far more than the median U.S. family income of $52,250, and still send them off to private schools at the public’s expense. Most students receiving vouchers last year were already attending private schools--meaning vouchers were being used a taxpayer subsidy for private education rather than as a way for students to escape underperforming public schools. Walker's newest voucher expansion in the state budget could suck some $600-800 million out of public schools over 10 years.

“They have high-jacked the program,” Annette “Polly” Williams, an African-American lawmaker who co-sponsored the original bill, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This is a pattern across the country. The voucher-like corporate tax credit program in Georgia was originally billed as a way of helping African-American and Latino families, but most scholarships have been awarded “white students from upper income families,” the Southern Education Foundation wrote in a scathing report. In 2013, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana raised the income requirements of the voucher program in the Hoosier State, and last year, Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott lifted the income bar for the state voucher program, allowing a family of four making up to $62,010 a year to participate—$20,000 higher than the previous ceiling.

With upped income ceilings in multiple states—not to mention the universal "Education Savings Account" system signed into law in Nevada last month—ALEC seems poised to ditch the civil rights "marketing plan," (as the rightwing Heartland Institute aptly put it in a 1991 paper) and get back to basics: school vouchers are for privatizing public education.

ALEC makes this abundantly clear when it recommends in its talking points that legislators not adjust the amount granted based on family income. The upshot of this is that vouchers will be a welcome bonus for well-off families whereas poor families may not be able to afford private school tuition even with the extra money.

This, in turn, will lead to increased segregation "based on race, socio-economic status, disability, English language proficience," as public school watchdog Educate Nevada Now warned when Gov. Sandoval signed the universal ESAs into law in June—a prospect that does not seem to faze ALEC legislators who are set to renew and refresh these policies in San Diego today.


Thank you for tracing this back to Milton Friedman. His goal was always to subsidize the private education choices of richer families with public monies. If a family uses their own car rather than public transportation, government does not subsidize the private car. In fact, government taxes the family to support public roads and bridges, police and fire departments, and other public purposes. Thank you for also noting that when the private schools use public money, they do NOT want public accountability, do NOT wish to admit all students who wish admission, do NOT want equal employment opportunity laws to apply. They also do NOT want taxpayers to have the right to elect their school boards or to receive notices of school board meetings or to have a right to inspect their books to see how taxpayer funds are being spent. They still want to be PRIVATE but with our money. Is this just a way for public officeholders to get the taxpayers to pay for THEIR children's private education? I have to wonder.

"The reason we cannot do that is because taxes are used to pay not for education, but for schools, for teachers." Obviously education experts, right? (sarcasm). So schools and teachers have nothing to do with education? What a crock.

When David Koch spoke to an Americans for Prosperity conference saying our country needed another tea party, who knew ALEC would emerge as the most potent instrument of change. The American Patriots who rushed onto a British Ship to dump the cargo of tea into Boston Harbor did much less damage than the influence of ALEC on State Legislators. It is time to call out the Tea Party as Anarchists intent on bringing down the government. The Tea Party works overtime to fulfill their prediction that public education will fail, so more money may be diverted to a profit based system which lines their pockets with a portion of the tax dollars diverted from providing for the general good. Corruption has become common place as the Tea Party Politicians simply use their Koch Brother's funded mega phone to shout back "not me, you."

Oh my. How many "Tea Party Anarchists" can you fit into a tea cup? You really are paranoid. How about constructive ideas on how to change the SICK educational systems that are destroying our future, instead of insipid comments about the Koch brothers?

I'm not tracking the author's negative tone. I thought the lefties were all about "choice", no? I saw "Waiting for Superman". There's no real way to spin the fact that public schools for America's minorities by-and-large are horrible. Teachers unions protect crappy teachers and doom minorities to a life-long cycle of under-employment and poverty. The public schools always complain that more money can fix their problems. Ok, give the money to the parents, let them decide. If public schools are so great, they will use their money to stay right where they are. If not, they'll leave, which will tell you everything you need to know about teachers unions.

First off, there are not that many parents who have much of an idea of how an actual education should be... the schools are hamstrung by ridiculous programs and tests that even most parents would fail. The teachers are not doing much "educating" they are coaching kids how to answer the questions on the mandatory state tests. These tests are not about education either, they are about producing good little corporate drones who will spit out the proper lines when told to. Take a look around... even kids from privatized schools can't form a proper sentence, can't figure out change, and have only cursory reading comprehension. You are very quick to vilify teachers unions, but those unions are NOT the ones who make up the curriculum... that is up to the state (your "elected officials") and the school board. (another political group that has no real interest in education but rather in power and authority)... How about this for a novel concept... let's teach the children how to think, how to step through a problem to arrive at an answer... let's teach them to question and explore and build... that is what has developed the greatest minds throughout history... that is where some of the greatest inventions originated. Not from drone privatization and rubber stamp "No Child Left Behind" rhetoric... Put up or shut up... to use a phrase that seems popular about now... those public schools are "too big to fail". There is a place for "private schools"... for special kids that can't learn and get along with the rest, for those who learn differently or those that are seeking education above and beyond the normal curriculum... but it is just that.. PRIVATE... and that means those that attend are the ones who pay for it... you want a "voucher" how about those that do private schooling get a break on those taxes for public education.

Milton Friedman's thinking on educational choice evolved between 1955 and 2005. Friedman originally accepted the "public goods" argument for State (government, generally) subsidization of education. He makes that case in his contribution to Solo's __Economics and the Public Interest__, where he wrote "(e)ducation is today largely paid for and almost entirely administered by governmental bodies or non-profit institutions". In __Capitalism and Freedom__, he replaced "education" in the above with "schooling". Later, in a __Reason__ interview he said that the work of Edwin West convinced him that tax subsidization of education was unnecessary. By the time he wrote his contributions to the Cato collection __Liberty and Learning: Milton Friedman's Voucher Idea at Fifty__ he clearly saw school choice as a stepping stone to more general educational freedom. Tuition vouchers predate Milton Friedman's 1955 essay by more than 100 years. Compulsory attendance at government-operated schools was a feature of theocratic colonies like Massachusetts Bay and New Haven. More colonies in pre-Revolutionary British North America either did not compel attendance at school or subsidized schools of the parents' choice than compelled attendance at government-operated schools. Educational freedom in the US died when, in the early decades of the 19th century, waves of poor Catholic immigrants demanded equal treatment for their schools and prompted an allergic reaction in the wealthier Protestant majority. What we in the US call "the pubic school system" (the policy that restricts parents' options for the use of the taxpayers' sub-adult education subsidy to schools operated by government employees) originated in Congregationalist evangelism and anti-Catholic bigotry. It does not take 12 years at $12,000 per child-year to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom (Hiram Maxim left school at 14 and apprenticed. Cyrus McCormick was homeschooled by his family of farmer-blacksmiths). State (government, generally) provision of History, Civics, and Economics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers and electronic broadcast news media would be (are, in totalitarian countries like Cuba and North Korea). The US State-monopoly school system has become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded supply, consulting and construction contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination.

So, according to this article, private schools are only for those in suburbia. ALEC (to whomever that is supposed to refer, or impugn) is incorrect. But, how many wonderful, small, private schools exist in predominately poor (and by that I guess I mean "black") neighborhoods? Not many. But, they do exist and they do turn out far superior graduates than the public schools with which they compete. The exception, such as these, PROVES that education CAN be achieved in poor areas. Just needs the parents to be ADULTS if they are going to spawn their offspring. "It takes a village"...? Not if the village is filled with ignorant (not an insulting term) parents and uneducated educators.