News & Politics

The right's push to privatize school took a major beating in the midterms

From California to New York, the charter school attack got a taste of democracy.

Photo Credit: Arizona Education Association (Gage Skidmore) / Flickr

The blue wave that swept the nation in the recent midterm elections was also a broad rejection of recent trends to privatize public education through school voucher programs and privately operated charter schools. From New York to California, new candidates ran and won on platforms opposed to privatization, big-money backers of charter schools suffered humiliating losses, and voters trounced efforts to expand voucher programs that drain public schools of the funding they need.

This spring’s teacher walkouts that made news across the country can take some credit for propelling the anti-privatization message to voters and prompting educators to take their support for public schools to the ballot box. But opposition to the privatization industry was also strong in states that did not experience teacher walkouts, and public education advocates are vowing to take their cause to state capitals and Congress to curb the flow of public money to unaccountable, privately operated education providers.

Stopping the Charter School Siege

One of the biggest defeats for the school privatization industry was in California where former charter school executive Marshall Tuck went down to his opponent, little-known Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, in the race for state superintendent of education.

Tuck got $36 million from charter industry advocates—including $11 million combined from real estate developer Bill Bloomfield, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and venture capitalist Arthur Rock—but still lost. It was his second run for the position after getting millions from many of the same backers four years ago to take on then-incumbent superintendent Tom Torlakson. This year’s race was much closer, but Tuck lost again despite outspending, by more than two to one, Thurmond, who got backing from the state teachers’ unions.

Both candidates are Democrats, as a result of being the top-two vote getters in California’s open primary system, but the party endorsed Thurmond, and prominent party officials, including U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, also supported him. However, the real differential in the contest was Tuck’s strong advocacy for charter schools versus Thurmond’s more cautious approach to slow down the rapid expansion of charters in the state and to make the schools more transparent and accountable.

California has become the source of “a never-ending stream of charter scandals,” observes Valerie Strauss, an education blogger for the Washington Post. Strauss points to research conducted by Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, that finds the state with the largest number of charters also has one of the highest incidents of charter school scandals due to the state’s mostly hands-off attitude toward regulating these schools.

Other studies have found that charter schools gouge California school districts for millions in precious education funds, which forces public schools to cut back on services, increase class sizes, fire teachers, and take other cost-cutting steps that harm students and push public schools toward financial ruin.

“Public education in California is under siege,” writes education historian Diane Ravitch on her personal blog, but Thurmond’s victory will undoubtedly slow the onslaught down.

Voting Down Voucher Expansions

Another big blow the midterms dealt to school privatization efforts was in Arizona, where voters said no, by nearly two to one, to a ballot initiative that would have expanded a state-supported voucher program.

The initiative, Proposition 305, was on the ballot due to a relentless grassroots effort by teachers, parents, and public school activists to overturn new legislation that opened up the state’s education savings account program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, to all of the state’s 1.1 million students. The program gives parents a debit card loaded with 90 percent of the amount of money the state would typically send a district for enrolling a student. In exchange for the money, parents must agree not to enroll their children in a public school—essentially giving up their children’s right to a free public education.

The program has few regulations, and a recent audit by the state found that parents misspent $700,000 in taxpayer money through the program, using their debit cards to purchase personal items like cosmetics, clothing, and travel. Only a small amount of the money has been recovered. As a result of the vouchers, over $141 million leaves the public school system with little accountability, which actually raises the costs of education to the state by an additional $62 million each year—roughly $4,700 per student.

With the overwhelming defeat of Prop 305, “the public rejected the siphoning of public money to private schools,” says Beth Lewis in an email. Lewis, an Arizona classroom teacher, cofounded and helps lead Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS-AZ), a grassroots organization originally formed to oppose the new law to expand the voucher program.

“The resounding defeat of Prop 305 shows voters have learned about education funding and rampant privatization efforts in the state, and they reject it,” says Sharon Kirsch in an email. Kirsch, a university professor, also helps lead SOS-AZ.

Relying on a network of volunteers—made up mostly of retired educators, parents, and community activists—SOS-AZ gathered 111,540 signatures to put Prop 305 on the ballot. Money from organizations supported by the Koch brothers’ poured into the state to urge voters to vote “yes” on Prop 305, but the grassroots effort led by Lewis, Kirsch, and others won.

“We successfully stopped universal voucher expansion,” says Kirsch, in “a direct repudiation of Betsy DeVos and other billionaires’ privatization schemes that have decimated our public schools for decades.”

A Bottom-Up Rebellion Against Privatization

Lewis and Kirsch credit this spring’s statewide teacher walkouts that happened in Arizona, and elsewhere, with helping to create the impetus for defeating school vouchers.

The movement, that eventually became called #RedforEd, “had an enormous impact on the elections,” says Lewis. “Arizonans woke up … and chose to vote against” vouchers.

“The walkouts resulted in educating tens of thousands of teachers across our state,” says Kirsch. In defeating Prop 305, “the people have spoken: Enough of these privatization schemes pushed by out-of-state billionaires,” she says.

Arizona wasn’t the only state where teacher walkouts helped generate strong opposition to privatization.

In Kentucky, grassroots public school activists animated by teacher walkouts earlier this year, “specifically targeted the 52 legislators who voted to pass the state’s first charter school bill in 2017,” writes Gay Adelmann in an email. Adelmann is a public school parent in Louisville and current president of Save Our Schools Kentucky. She recently ran for state Senate in the Democratic Party, losing in the primary with 44 percent of the vote as a first-time candidate with little funding.

While only a handful of the charter supporters in the state legislature went down, according to Adelmann, there were important wins for charter opponents, including special education teacher Tina Bojanowski, who unseated two-term Republican incumbent Phil Moffett, who helped author the state’s first charter school legislation.

“It will take more than one election cycle to feel the results of [the teacher movement],” says Adelmann, “but the shift to oppose charters is happening.”

Midwestern State Vote Against DeVos Agenda

The shift to oppose school privatization is not confined to the teacher walkout states.

In gubernatorial races across the Midwest, Democrats ran and won with strong oppositional messages against school privatization.

In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer won a governor’s seat formerly occupied by Rick Snyder after campaigning to “end the [Betsy] DeVos agenda in Michigan,” close for-profit charter schools in the state, and propose additional oversights for charters.

In Minnesota, Democratic challenger for an open governor’s seat Tim Walz, a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, pledged to block any proposed voucher programs. He won decisively.

In Illinois, Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker defeated incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, while pledging to end the state’s education tax credit voucher program, which already diverts public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for 5,600 students.

The state’s tax credit scholarship program, like all other such programs, is a money-laundering scheme. Whereas vouchers distribute public education funds directly to parents, education tax credit programs use a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO)—that is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to the private school industry. Tax credits are issued by the state to private individuals, businesses, or corporations that make donations to the STO. The money from the STO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition, instead of going to public schools that rely on that funding. The STO takes its cut of every dollar passed through its program, and few records are kept about how the money is actually spent and what the academic results are for students who participate.

The Illinois tax credit program is especially deceptive in its stated intentions to rescue struggling students from “failed schools.” It allows parents to get around the state law prohibiting taxpayer money to go to religious schools. And because individuals who donate can take a $75 tax credit for every $100 donated and get up to $1 million in tax credits, the program is a huge giveaway to the wealthy.

Parents who take advantage of the tuition money can make as much as $98,400 and still participate in the program, and many parents taking advantage of the program already had their children in private schools.

Democrats had setbacks in the Midwest too, especially in Ohio where a strong candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, made the state’s scandalous charter school industry an issue in his race but ended up losing to a vulnerable Republican who mostly ignored the scandals.

But the largely uncontested playing field charter school and school voucher proponents have enjoyed in nearly two decades of elections is now thick with formidable opponents.

A Charter Turnaround in the Empire State

In what is perhaps the most startling of charter school turnarounds, midterm elections in New York took down a longstanding coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate who colluded with charter advocate Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to expand these schools and keep them relatively regulation-free.

As New York City public school art teacher and citizen journalist Jake Jacobs reports for the Progressive, a faction of eight Democratic state senators calling themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) had for years shared power and donors with Senate Republicans to work with Governor Cuomo in maintaining a “favored status” for charter schools in the state.

In September primaries, six grassroots-backed Democratic candidates ousted IDC members, and then, in turn, handily beat their Republican opponents in November. Despite being vastly outspent by the Republicans, the insurgent Democrats pressed their cases to stop charter schools from taking over space in public school buildings and to block attempts to lift the cap on the numbers of charters that can operate in the state. Most supported a moratorium on new charter schools proposed by the NAACP.

Because of victories by these insurgent Democrats, who will insist on more scrutiny of charter schools, Jacobs foresees “a new landscape” in the state legislature “where evidence and research matter more than Albany’s rampant ‘pay-for-play’ arrangements” that have given charters the upper hand.

We Have Only Just Begun

Similarly, in red states where teacher rebellions have begun to turn the tables on the school privatization industry, public school advocates are seeing a transformed political landscape where resistance is not only possible but winnable.

After midterm elections in Arizona, “we will have the most balanced state legislature since the 1980s,” says Beth Lewis, “with roughly half of the legislators having declared full support for fully funded public schools.”

She writes, “As leader of Save Our Schools Arizona, I will work with other groups to ensure that we stop all efforts to privatize our schools and ensure that we achieve an excellent public school in every Arizona neighborhood. I will not stop until this goal is realized.”

“With the #RedforEd movement last spring and the resounding defeat of Prop 305, Arizona now has tens of thousands of teachers paying attention,” says Sharon Kirsch. “These teachers learned about education funding and rampant privatization efforts in Arizona, they’ve met and canvased for pro-public education candidates, and they’ve found their voice to demand that our legislators prioritize public education. We have only just begun.”

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy.