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The Religious Privatization Prophets OK with Profits from Public Funds

Diane Ravitch’s blog yesterday also included a link to “The Privatization Prophets”, Jennifer Berkshire’s post in Jacobin describing the cast of characters who are stealthily supporting the spread of vouchers as a means of simultaneously expanding the reach of for-profit charters and enabling public funds to be used for religious schools. And who do we find on that list? Not the multi-billionaires who underwrote the LA campaign… but some ultra-right wing pro-Christian donors whose names are emerging from the shadows at a national level. And Ms. Berkshire’s description of the rationale for the expansion of vouchers is chilling:

The ultimate aim of the project of which DeVos is now the most visible face is to remove education from the public system. Those “buildings” of which she speaks so disdainfully, the disparaging “status quo” never far behind, represent the entire architecture of public education, and more importantly, its democratic control.

Diminishing this is key to reaching the promised land of privatization. Stodgy school boards are standing in the way of getting there; so are superintendents and parent teacher associations and teachers unions — above all, the teachers unions.

Unfettering the markets is only part of the vision. Control over the process of socializing children, the near-monopoly domain of a system that is both secular and, as the libertarian right deridingly characterizes it, collectivist, is another prize. And if there is some money to be made along the way, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.

As Ms. Berkshire notes, Ms. Devos’ vision appeals to both prophets and those who seek profit. In her post she describes state level efforts to expand vouchers through back-door mechanisms like scholarship funds, and in so doing offers some historical insights on the roots of the antipathy between the affluent and public education and the fundamentalists and public education:

Go back a century and a half and you land roughly in the time of Horace Mann, who ushered in the Prussian model of universal, secular education paid for by the public themselves something that irked the wealthy even back then. They could smell higher taxes coming, and besides, they sent their own children to private schools. The rich have grown no fonder of footing the bill for public schools over the years, but the 150-year-old shift away from the family as the locus of education and to the secular state still rankles.

“There is a segment of the conservative evangelical world that has never accepted public education as a legitimate enterprise to begin with. They think public education is ‘secular,and they are therefore hostile to it,” says Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club, which examined efforts by the religious right to infiltrate and undermine public education. For DeVos and her ilk, enabling the flow of public money into schools with conservative religious and ideological programming comes with an added benefit, says Stewart. “It weakens so-called ‘government schools’ that they assert tilt liberal and secular.”

The major donor to the cause of vouchers, in addition to the DeVos family, is the Mercer family, recently profiled in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer. Ms. Berkshire describes others who have benefitted from the Mercer families’ largesse, who include fringe candidates for office and, most notably, Steve Bannon and Breitbart News. 

But Ms. Berkshire’s most scathing indictment is reserved for the Democratic party:

Long before anyone outside of Michigan had heard of Betsy DeVos, Democrats like Dwight Evans (PA) had enthusiastically joined the war against the teachers unions. And it is Democrats who have pushed to redefine public education in one city after another as an individual parent choice to be exercised in a competitive marketplace rather than a collective, community good.

School choice has been legitimized, not by DeVos et al, but by the likes of Corey Booker, Rahm Emanuel and other reform-minded Democrats. If saving public education is to be a key plank of the #resistance, Democrats will have to join the fight or be swept aside.

In that concluding paragraph, Ms. Berkshire lays bare the stark choice we face if we want to preserve democratically operated public schools: we either need to get the Democratic Party to embrace the traditional democratic governance model of education or create a REAL Democratic Party.

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