Betsy DeVos, Education, Vouchers — December 17, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Why we must NOT give Betsy DeVos and school choice “a chance”


A recent “article” featured in a post from the Great Lakes Education Project told the story of Denisha Meriweather, “an intelligent, dynamic and motivating individual whose life was changed by the school choice policies promoted by Betsy DeVos.” The title of the article on The Hill is, “Why we must give Betsy DeVos and school choice a chance.”

Let me explain why giving Betsy DeVos and school choice “a chance” is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

First, let’s understand where this “article” is coming from.

  1. Denisha Meriweather used a corporate tax break program that Betsy DeVos helped get passed in Florida that allows corporations to divert up to 75% of their tax payments as “donations” to private school voucher programs in the state. As reported by Mercedes Schneider, here’s how Ms. DeVos explains this program:

DeVos: The Tax Credit Opportunity Scholarship is a tax credit against corporate taxes in the state of Florida. So, if you have a business that pays Florida state corporate taxes, you can redesignate up to, I believe it’s 75 percent [Pozzuoli: Right.] of your corporate tax burden to the state annually into a scholarship fund. That scholarship fund is then vouchered out, or given out in incremental amounts [Pozzuoli: Right.] to low-income students and their families to choose the school or educational setting that is going to work best for them.

Pozzuoli: So then, the child and their family can use the voucher and attend a private school [DeVos: Exactly.] or parochial school or whatever?

DeVos. Exactly.

Pozzuoli: And so, since there are no state monies involved, it is all essentially all private monies with the tax credit method.

DeVos: Exactly.

Pozzuoli: Okay.

DeVos: Exactly. Because those funds never go into the state coffers to begin with.

Pozzuoli: So, for some of our corporate partners who will watch this, this is really an opportunity [to invest].

DeVos: …it’s a great opportunity. Absolutely, it is.

Alert readers may wonder what the impact might be of corporations diverting up to 3/4ths of their corporate tax responsibilities to subsidize tuition at private and Christian schools in Florida. That’s 75% less going to public schools, police and fire departments, road and bridge maintenance, and countless other public “goods.”

One might further wonder about the wisdom of allowing persons, or corporations, to decide where their tax dollars should be directed.

Should an individual be able to decide that they don’t want their taxes to go towards libraries? [Oops, Jeb Bush already did that: “In May 2006, as part of a US$448.7-million line-item veto of state funding, he cut a total of US$5.8 million in grants to public libraries, pilot projects for library homework help and web-based high-school texts, and funding for a joint-use library in Tampa.”)

Should a corporation decide that they don’t want their taxes to go towards supporting the government department or agency that regulates their industry?

What Ms. DeVos and the Republican leadership in Florida don’t seem to understand is that public taxes are collected to go towards providing necessary services dedicated to the “public good”–roads and infrastructure support; clean water and air; excellent public schools for all children; well-supported public safety organizations, like fire and police departments. It’s not an a la carte system where persons decide what they want to pay for, and what they don’t want to pay for. And public tax dollars should not be spent on subsidizing attendance at private and Christian schools. Which leads us to…

2. The school that Ms. Meriweather attended was a private Christian school.

The amount of the voucher she received through Florida’s Tax Credit Opportunity Scholarship was around $4000.

The tuition of the private Christian school she attended was around $6000 per year, plus uniforms, books, and fees.

So, the voucher Ms. Meriweather and her family received may have helped, but it certainly did not cover the full cost of attending the school. This is one of the under-reported problems with vouchers–while the rhetoric around vouchers promises to “level the playing field”, and “allow poor children to attend the private school of their choice,” the vast majority of children and families don’t receive enough in the form of vouchers to attend “the school of their choice.”

In fact, there’s an insidious but unmistakable scent of racism and classism associated with voucher programs. As an example: Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and a huge supporter and close friend of Betsy DeVos, sent his own children to the elite Gulliver Prepatory School in FL, where tuition for grades 6-12 rings up at an eye-popping $36,840 per year. Ms. Meriweather’s $4000 voucher wouldn’t have covered textbooks and uniforms at Gulliver–hardly a “game changer.”

The subtle, yet obvious message here is that while Jeb and Betsy want the public tax money that “allows” poor children almost afford to attend some low-level private and Christian schools, they have no intention of letting “those” children go to the same elite private and Christian schools that “their” children attend.

3. Ms. Meriweather is not simply “an intelligent, dynamic and motivating individual whose life was changed by the school choice policies promoted by Betsy DeVos.” She’s an employee of “Step Up For Students”, a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer the very Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program she benefitted from.

Ms. Meriweather has also been writing versions of this article at least since she graduated from college in 2014. So, to date, the only job Ms. Meriweather has secured as a result of receiving her voucher is working for the organization that gave her the voucher, and trying to influence public opinion on the worth and value of vouchers.

So, Betsy DeVos’ GLEP is promoting an “article” by an employee of the very group that administers her corporate tax “work around” voucher initiative in Florida as an example of how vouchers will “work” nationally.

The logic here seems circular, flimsy, and not terribly convincing.

Kind of like vouchers themselves, come to think of it.