By Gloria C. Endres
Back in the fall of 2010, a sensational documentary film was released titled “Waiting for Superman.” It promoted the oversimplified notion that American public education has been a gross failure that can be saved only by a free market reform model. Of course the major blame for this exaggerated failure was placed squarely and solely on teachers and their union. Whenever Randi Weingarten, the head of the national teachers’ union, spoke, sinister music was heard. All she needed was a scary cackle to complete the portrait of evil.
Administrators, parents and the students themselves were spared any responsibility for failure. Special needs or disabilities did not matter. If only those villainous, incompetent educators could be brought to submission and lose their union protections, defined benefit pensions, seniority rights and tenure, the free market would descend like Superman and magically take care of everything.
The star of the film was former chancellor of the District of Columbia School District Michelle Rhee, who had formed a PAC called Students First. She shared the same name with another PAC affiliated with billionaire theocrat Betsy DeVos who had her own school choice organization called American Federation for Children, formerly the Alliance for School Choice. Together, Michelle and Betsy worked hard but failed to get Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams elected governor of Pennsylvania with his platform of school vouchers.
Betsy Prince DeVos, secretary of education, is the wife of Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of the home products business Amway. Her brother is Erik Prince, founder of the infamous private military contractor Blackwater USA. (Erik’s name has been mentioned lately in connection with taking over private military operations in Afghanistan.) The DeVoses, along with other wealthy families like the Koch brothers and the Waltons, have been working for years to achieve several conservative goals that include: eliminating public education, privatizing Social Security, reducing government regulations, thwarting environmental policy and dismantling unions. Getting government out of their way as much as possible is the ultimate goal. Some, like Betsy, have other theocratic goals also. Let’s not just end secular public schools but replace them as much as possible with Christian-centered education. If she could, she would replace science with religious doctrine. No evolution for her. Climate change is a hoax. Environmentalism is a cult attacking Christianity.
School vouchers never passed in Pennsylvania, but we have back door vouchers in the form of Education Improvement Tax Credit “scholarships.” These tax-supported scholarships circumvent our state law forbidding money to go to sectarian education by using the device of private organizations that indirectly funnel corporate money to private schools. The corporation meanwhile gets a 90 percent tax credit. The state legislature keeps increasing the funding for these scholarships. In Philadelphia, for example, thanks to EITC money, there are 15 former parochial schools that have been converted to an independently run group called Independence Mission Schools. Saint Thomas Aquinas at 18th and Morris is one of them. Most of their students are poor and non-Catholic. Also, students who attend local diocesan high schools such as Saints Newman-Goretti are eligible to apply for these scholarships. Please note that EITC recipients are not required to take state standardized tests.
Another form of “back door” vouchers is of course charter schools. Most of the charter schools in Pennsylvania exist in the School District of Philadelphia. There is a scene in “Waiting for Superman” where tense, hopeful children wait in an auditorium to hear if their lottery numbers are called and they can escape their inferior public school for a better education in a charter school. The movie never mentions the many charter schools that fail to provide adequate education or simply go out of business. It is all about saving these children from the pit of ignorance otherwise known as “government schools.”
Betsy De Vos is not evil. She is just an ideologue. When she found out there is a rule called Title IX that would have disregarded due process when dealing with so-called college date rape, she moved to end it. That was the right thing to do. But when it comes to public education, she has only her personal world view to guide her. She has never attended, taught or sent her children to public school. But she is part of the radical religious right that believes it is essential to separate school from state.
DeVos and her family have been top contributors to the Republican Party. She spent a fortune promoting a voucher initiative that failed in her own state of Michigan. At a time when this country is becoming super sensitive to segregationist missions, many attempts to introduce “school choice” are falling on deaf ears. Citizens are awakening to the fact that vouchers, like charter schools, guarantee nothing. A student with a voucher has no privileged entry to a school that has special admissions standards. Likewise, charter schools still have their lotteries and other criteria for admissions. The notion of school choice is basically a hoax. The only system that remains open, democratic and free to all is the public school system. If we can keep it.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Betsy Prince DeVos remains undeterred. She has more than three years left to advance her cause. Her president has already signed legislation dismantling many environmental regulations. He openly agrees with her about climate. He has no time for unions. He chose her on purpose to lead the Department of Education to give her the biggest platform for her agenda.
But will it leap tall buildings?