South Carolina residents who care about the state’s public education system have spent years battling the relentless campaign to institute private school choice here. Now it looks as if the war is going national.
South Carolina has a significant cadre of so-called reformers who would like to use taxpayer dollars to help pay tuition costs for students to attend private schools. Under their plan, the money would come from vouchers, tax deductions or a system in which wealthy residents could get tax write-offs for contributing to scholarships for students to go to private schools.
In addition to South Carolinians who have lobbied for vouchers, the state also has been a target for out-of-state crusaders who have sunk millions of dollars into the school choice crusade, hoping to make the state a laboratory for change. In some cases, the money is used to lobby directly for school choice; in other cases, it has gone to candidates for the General Assembly who would support choice if elected.
The biggest such donor has been Howard Rich, a real estate multi-millionaire from Manhattan, who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into elections across the state since 2006. So far, state lawmakers have defeated private school choice plans – except on a small-scale experimental level – and most of Rich’s favored candidates have gone down to defeat.
Now, however, vouchers have a new and powerful champion in a position to influence state standards nationwide. President-elect Donald Trump has selected Betsy DeVos as his nominee for U.S. Education secretary.
DeVos, like Rich, is obsessed with private school choice. She has spent the last 20 years working in support of school choice, including an unsuccessful effort in 1993 to change the state constitution in her home state of Michigan to allow tax-credit scholarships or vouchers.
DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, now leads the American Federation for Children, a pro-choice lobbying group that has branches in a number of states. The AFC contributed to 121 races in 12 states in the general election in support of pro-choice candidates.
DeVos comes from a wealthy family herself, but also is married to Dick DeVos, who is an heir to the Amway fortune and the company’s former president. He made an unsuccessful bid for the Michigan governorship in 2006, spending more than $35 million of his own money.
The couple has four children, none of whom attended public schools.
Trump called his nominee “a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” and promised that she would help “break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back.” In other words, she will be the fox guarding the hen house.
South Carolinians also are familiar with that scenario. Former Gov. Mark Sanford also was a passionate supporter of private school choice plans, including vouchers, and managed during his tenure to severely undermine public education in the state.
Vouchers and tax credits funneled to families to help pay for private school tuition are a scam. Proponents can show no evidence that private school choice programs improve educational opportunities for children, while ample evidence shows that they are harmful to public education.
These programs rarely, if ever, are designed to cover the full cost of a quality private education for low-income families. Instead, they merely supplement tuition costs for families who can afford to send their kids to private school anyway.
Once these programs are in place, fly-by-night private schools crop up to take advantage of voucher and tax-credit money. Because they are private, they are not subject to any of the state standards that apply to public schools.
What private school choice plans do is aid wealthier students fleeing the public schools, leaving low-income students behind and eroding support for public schools.
Betsy DeVos has pledged to oversee a “transformational change” in U.S. education. That should be deeply frightening to anyone who values the institution of public education.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.