Betsy DeVos’ Wisconsin voucher school visit draws fire

By: - September 16, 2019 2:45 pm

Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos | Education Department via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched a “Back to School” tour on Monday with a visit to a private voucher school in Milwaukee — a city described by the Department of Education in a press release as the “birthplace of education freedom.”

“Thanks to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, now in its 30th year, thousands of students have had the freedom to pursue an education that works for them,” the department said.

DeVos is a Michigan native whose family has spearheaded education choice initiatives across the country and donated millions to GOP candidates and conservative causes. This year marks the 25th year of charter schools in Michigan and DeVos played a pivotal role in both their birth and expansion, as the Advance has reported.

She was scheduled to tour St. Marcus Lutheran School, where almost all of the students receive school vouchers through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. She hosted a roundtable on the importance of “education freedom” with parents, students and educators, and deliver keynote remarks.

DeVos is promoting her Education Freedom Scholarship program, which, according to the Department of Education, will offer $5 billion in annual federal tax credits for donations to state-based scholarship funds to “empower students and families to choose the best education setting for them — regardless of where they live, how much they make, and how they learn.”

Michigan made

DeVos founded the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) and has been a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She headed the All Children Matter political action committee playing in state elections and served as board chair of the Alliance for School Choice.A former Michigan GOP chair, DeVos worked with her husband, Dick DeVos, who unsuccessfully ran for governor as a Republican in 2006, on several efforts, including the failed ballot proposal for school vouchers in 2000.

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has donated millions to both charter and Christian schools. Dick DeVos founded a charter school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, at his wife’s suggestion.

Michigan’s GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature removed the cap on the number of charters, the culmination of years of effort from Betsy DeVos and her allies. The Legislature also discontinued the practice of requesting an annual report from the Michigan Department of Education that analyzed charter schools performance.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The act allowed for up to 500 charters in Michigan by 2014, up from the limit of 250. It resulted in an increase in charter schools up to 298 operating during that 2013-14 school year. By the 2014-15 school year, there were 302 charter schools operating in Michigan.

As a result, Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country. And as noted by a 2017 New York Times investigation, schools here enjoy some of the least state oversight. They alsohave come under fire for their lack of financial transparency and excessive overhead costs, as uncovered in 2014 Detroit Free Press investigation.

“Michigan is still an outlier,” West Michigan University professor Gary Miron said. “No state comes near us when it comes to privatization.”

In her current role as U.S. Education secretary, Betsy DeVos has continued to boost charters from that perch.

Wisconsin landscape

Milwaukee launched the first school-voucher program in the United States three decades ago, and school vouchers, which use public money to cover the cost of private-school tuition for participating families, have been expanded statewide in Wisconsin, generating mixed results and a great deal of controversy. 

Getty Images

Numerous studies have found that Wisconsin’s voucher students perform no better in reading and math than their public-school peers. A 2018 Wall Street Journal analysis found that voucher students in Milwaukee fared best when they attended schools with few voucher students. But the vast majority of Milwaukee students who receive school vouchers attend schools with high percentages of publicly funded students, the Journal noted.

LifeSkills Academy, one of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice program schools, made headlines when it closed in the middle of the night in December 2013, leaving students stranded, while the school’s owners disappeared with hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds. Only one of the 66 students at the school scored “proficient” in reading and math.

For years, fly-by-night academies popped up regularly all over Milwaukee to take advantage of school vouchers. With lower standards for teacher education, curriculum, and facilities, schools opened in strip malls, corner stores, and former fast-food restaurants.

“The fly-by-nights are gone now,” says Marva Herndon, a Milwaukee school board member who spent years working to expose shady voucher-school operators in Milwaukee and finally helped set standards that led many of them to be closed by the city’s zoning board. Herndon now sits on the Milwaukee school board, and continues to oppose voucher schools.

The issues of curriculum, teacher training, and the drain on public-school funds remain.

Milwaukee, Racine, and the State of Wisconsin currently run three separate parental-choice programs.

Last year, there were 129 private schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, with a total enrollment of 28,917 students, according to the Department of Public Instruction, at an estimated cost of  $221,800,000, paid for by a reduction in state aid to Milwaukee public schools.

Racine had 26 private schools participating in the voucher program, with a total enrollment of 3,324 students, at an estimated to cost of $25,600,000.

The statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program had 213 private schools participating, with a total enrollment of 7,140 students and an estimated cost for the year of $54,600,000. State law requires that these students’ resident public school districts have their state aid reduced by the amount paid to cover their private-school tuition.

Scott Walker
Scott Walker

Former state Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), publicly disagreed with former Gov. Scott Walker over his efforts to expand school vouchers, and toured the state to talk about the risk of education budget cuts and a voucher expansion back in 2014.  

“We can’t afford one system in this state,” Schultz said of Wisconsin’s public schools in an interview upon his retirement that year. “How we are going to ever have ourselves in a situation of trying to fund two is beyond me.”

DeVos influence

DeVos, who ran the pro-school-choice American Federation for Children before she became Secretary of Education, along with her husband, personally contributed about $250,000 to Walker in 2014, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

American Federation for Children spent $866,000 on Wisconsin legislative races in 2014 to create what the group’s lobbyist, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, calls “a school choice majority in both houses” of the state legislature.

The school choice lobby is now among the most powerful in Wisconsin. As more public funds have flowed into private schools through an expanding school-voucher system, there is less money available for public school system.

Public-school activists in Wisconsin reacted negatively to Betsy DeVos’ voucher school visit on Monday.

Secretary DeVos’s visit is occurring as parents in the Palmyra-Eagle School District attempt to save their kids’ school system from closure, and as voters across Wisconsin approved a record amount of school referenda to enhance aging facilities and/or maintain programming,” the Wisconsin Public Education Network said in a press release.

The Network objected to DeVos’ proposal to cut $7.1 billion in federal funding from public schools nationwide, while increasing funding to private and privately operated schools.

As districts struggle to cover costs, vouchers are particularly controversial. Wisconsin Public Education Network put out statements from parents and school officials from around the state, responding to DeVos’ appearance on Monday.

“Vouchers for unaccountable private schools cost the Osceola School District and local taxpayers over $300,000 last year, while the district has had to cut almost $2 million from its budget in the last four years,” said Bob Wright, coordinator of the Saint Croix Valley Friends of Public Education. “Our taxpayers and students deserve better than Betsy DeVos’s privatization scheme!”

“When the country’s Secretary of Education comes to Milwaukee for a politically motivated photo op at a private school, she not only doesn’t help the vast majority of our kids, but she actually harms public education,” said Tom Beebe, former school board member in Fort Atkinson and longtime public-school advocate. “No thank you, ma’am, Wisconsin really doesn’t need you butting in to our business.”

A version of this piece first ran in the Advance‘s sister publication, the Wisconsin Examiner. Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this story.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration.