The conservative policy institutes founded beginning in the 1970s get hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy families and foundations to develop and promote free market fundamentalism. More specifically, their goals include privatizing social security, reducing government regulations, thwarting environmental policy, dismantling unions — and eliminating public schools.
Whatever they may say about giving poor students a leg up, their real priority is nothing short of the total dismantling of our public educational institutions, and they’ve admitted as much. Cato Institute founder Ed Crane and other conservative think tank leaders have signed the Public Proclamation to Separate School and State, which reads in part that signing on, “Announces to the world your commitment to end involvement by local, state, and federal government from education.”
But Americans don’t want their schools dismantled. So privatization advocates have recognized that it’s not politically viable to openly push for full privatization and have resigned themselves to incrementally dismantling public school systems. The think tanks’ weapon of choice is school vouchers.
Vouchers are funded with public school dollars but are used to pay for students to attend private and parochial (religious-affiliated) schools. The idea was introduced in the 1950s by the high priest of free-market fundamentalism, Milton Friedman, who also made the real goal of the voucher movement clear: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.” The quote is in a 1995 Cato Institute briefing paper titled “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”
Joseph Bast, president of Heartland Institute, stated in 1997, “Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Bast added, “Government schools will diminish in enrollment and thus in number as parents shift their loyalty and vouchers to superior-performing private schools.”
But Bast’s lofty goals have not panned out. That’s because, quite simply, voucher programs do not work.
The longest running voucher program in the country is the 20-year-old Milwaukee School Choice Program. Standardized testing shows that the voucher students in private schools perform below the level of Milwaukee’s public school students, and even when socioeconomic status is factored in, the voucher students still score at or below the level of the students who remain in Milwaukee’s public schools. Cleveland’s voucher program has produced similar results. Private schools in the voucher program range from excellent to very poor. In some, less than 20 percent of students reach basic proficiency levels in math and reading.
Most Americans do not want their tax dollars to fund private and sectarian schools. Since 1966, 24 of 25 voucher initiatives have been defeated by voters, most by huge margins. Nevertheless, the pro-privatization battle continues, organized by an array of 527s, 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and political action committees. At the helm of this interconnected network is Betsy DeVos, the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement.