May 10, 2022

Kalena Thomhave: The School Privatization Movement’s Latest Scheme to Undermine Public Education

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At In These Times, Kalena Thomhave provides an explainer about the new wave of neo-vouchers aka education savings accounts.”

At least a dozen states, including Tennessee, have introduced legislation to create ESAs, heralded as ​the next generation of school choice” by school privatization proponents. Instead of a traditional voucher program, which diverts public money to private schools, ESAs grant public money directly to parents. This maneuver could help avoid challenges due to state-level Blaine Amendments, which prohibit state money from funding religious schools. It also removes accountability; parents in Arizona, where ESAs were the first to pass in 2011, spent more than $700,000 in ESA funds on purchases unrelated to education between July 2017 and June 2018. But if the goal is to blow a hole in a state’s education budget, that misspending may not matter.

An ESA bill recently failed in Georgia, partly because rural lawmakers were not fully on board. Students in rural areas don’t typically have private school options, and, if there is one, they are often remote and require driving long distances. If it’s a small school, even one student leaving can have a substantial impact on the school’s budget.

That’s the case in rural areas throughout Tennessee, though the major ESA bill, which passed in 2019, included only the Nashville and Memphis areas. It originally included Knoxville as well, but Knox County was later removed from the bill before a Knoxville state representative flipped his vote, allowing the bill to pass. The act has since been declared unconstitutional and the state supreme court has heard an appeal but has yet to issue a ruling. (There’s also a current FBI investigation regarding whether then-House Speaker Glen Casada offered a quid pro quo for votes.)

ESAs are still in use in Tennessee, but are reserved for students with disabilities. According to Jennifer Owen, a school board member in Knoxville, this is an example of how school privatizers get a ​foot in the door” so that they can later expand the program. Currently, a bill moving through the state legislature would expand ESAs to students with dyslexia.

Outside of the promise of ​choice” for public school students, there’s another reason that school privatization is so attractive. For a few, privatization leads to profit.

If you can show that the [public] schools are ​failing,’ then there are opportunities to sell so-called solutions — test prep, charter schools, vouchers — [these] are the for-profit solutions,” says [Amy] Frogge.

It may be no surprise, then, that the people behind school privatization are incredibly wealthy. According to Nashville’s NewsChannel 5, lobbyists in Tennessee work for the pro-privatization American Federation for Children, funded by billionaire Betsy DeVos, as well as the City Fund, backed by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and hedge fund billionaire John Arnold. Hastings is also an investor in Rocketship charter schools, education software company DreamBox Learning, and Khan Academy, which publishes education videos. Bill Gates and the Walton family have also donated millions to education initiatives in Tennessee.

Charles Siler is a former lobbyist for the conservative Goldwater Institute who now works in public education advocacy. While gutting the education budget in a state ​reduces a huge tax liability” for the wealthy and generates business opportunities in for-profit education, according to Siler, there are other insidious reasons that corporations and the wealthy encourage privatization. ​Public education [creates more] opportunities for social mobility, which means a lot more churn and less stability in social and economic class. That’s the kind of thing that threatens people who fund these movements,” says Siler. ESAs were actually developed at the Goldwater Institute, Siler adds, ​as a shell game…that launder[s] [public] money through parents.” These parents are then presented as the grassroots arm behind school privatization, but in truth, according to Siler, grassroots interests in the movement are negligible. ​They don’t really need a large grassroots movement. The politicians can enact [policy] and say they’re doing it to give people options.”

Read the full piece here for more details about ESAs and their impact.

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