Betsy DeVos

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to a packed crowd at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference July 20, 2017, in at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. (Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post via AP)

Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin Assembly, attended the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in July in Denver. Taylor, who has attended the annual gathering of the right-wing organization since 2013, regularly reports back her observations. This year we are running three op/eds about her experiences. The first two installments ran Aug. 16 and 17

Despite the American Legislative Council's tentative embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency, they are foaming at the mouth for the now-endless opportunities to further privatize public education — a key ALEC goal they have been promoting and pushing for decades. It was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson who notoriously recounts returning from an ALEC convention with the idea of diverting public money to private schools in Milwaukee — the first state voucher scheme in the nation — which he misleadingly touts as his own.

It was fitting that the keynote speaker was school privatization czarina Betsy DeVos. DeVos has spent most of her life using her billions to privatize public education through charter and voucher school schemes. At the helm as chairperson of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the largest school privatization organization in the country, she led a successful push at the state level, including Wisconsin, to direct public funds to unaccountable, private schools.

Bashing the protesters who gather outside the ALEC convention, along with George Soros and the “radical left,” is the favorite sport of the ALEC crowd. DeVos received an enthusiastic response when she started her remarks by stating that this convention was the first event she has been to in recent memory where the protesters probably weren’t there “just for her,” which is her “badge of honor.” After giving shout outs to Michigan and Wisconsin for leading the privatization effort, she lauded the 43 state legislatures in 20 states that have expanded privatization efforts just this year. She encouraged more action to privatize by stating that “no one ever lost a seat because of choice,” a refrain I heard repeatedly (perhaps because of the millions of dollars the school privatization industry gives to candidates).

DeVos promised to completely review President Barack Obama’s “most harmful regulations,” including one to protect students from the predatory practices of for-profit colleges that she estimated would cost “$17 billion.” And though recognizing the need to “empower” teachers, she supports union busting. She urged states to “use the power of the purse” to “restore” free speech rights on campus, a popular conservative refrain as they push model bills in Wisconsin and other states to punish political speech and protest on campus.

But DeVos' philosophy was illuminated most by her reference to another education secretary by the name of Margaret Thatcher, whom she quotes as asking, “But who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” DeVos, like most at ALEC, dismisses the collective good in favor of the individual benefit, regardless of how this impacts others. Our public education system was designed to collectively educate the masses, in hopes that democracy would thrive.

Though she gave few other policy specifics, other ALEC speakers did. Despite ALEC’s rallying cry against the federal government’s “interference” and “overreach” in public education (and in almost all other areas), one of the efforts to expand vouchers will ironically come from — wait for it — a new federal program. According to remarks made by disgraced former Wisconsin legislator Scott Jensen, now AFC’s senior strategist who addressed ALEC’s education task force and whose former boss was DeVos, DeVos will likely implement a “federal choice tax credit” program. This scheme will use taxpayer money in the form of tax credits for corporations and wealthy donors who make contributions to state-sponsored voucher scholarship programs. The goal is to give more money to more students for voucher schools while the corporate interests pushing this system get tax credits. Jensen estimates that more than 1 million additional students will be able to attend private schools under this federal tax incentive program.

What these voucher pushers never mention is that their privatization efforts have failed to do what they initially promised — increase academic performance and graduation rates for low-income, primarily African-American kids. We need look no further than Milwaukee to conclude their experiment has failed, and we now have almost 30 years of proof that students in these schools perform no better than children in public schools.

The private school industry’s response to this failure is to change the topic. No longer do you hear these advocates talk about low-income students in low-performing schools, lifting kids out of poverty or creating opportunities for at-risk kids. Their focus now is targeting middle-income families. They talk about an education system where every parent has a choice about where to send their child. What they know is that their universal voucher scheme (i.e., a voucher in every backpack), where public dollars flow directly to families rather than schools, makes it impossible for a public school infrastructure to survive. How do you maintain public school facilities and faculties and staff when you have no guaranteed funding?

For ALEC, it is all about tearing down our public school infrastructure so corporate privatization efforts can move in and make a buck. What you never hear at ALEC is any discussion about improving public education. There is never a mention of smaller class sizes, community schools, or recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of the best and brightest teachers. To DeVos, those who support public schools are “supporters of the status quo.” The ABCs of ALEC’s education push is about anything but children in public schools. The result is that most children and communities lose.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, represents 76th District in the Wisconsin Assembly.

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