Hoosiers push back against DeVos

Education advocates in Indiana have a unique perspective on the radical school-choice policies that Betsy DeVos is promoting as U.S. secretary of education, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Hoosiers have seen how a school voucher program that was sold as a way to help poor children escape “failing” schools can evolve into something quite different: an entitlement for middle-class parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense.

Teresa Meredith

Teresa Meredith

“In Indiana, the voucher program has really changed,” Meredith said in a phone interview. “There is now no cap on the number of vouchers. Families with a really decent income can qualify. And the data are telling us that most kids getting vouchers are already in private schools, or that was the family’s plan all along.”

DeVos came to Indianapolis Monday to speak at a policy summit of the American Federation of Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group that she formerly chaired. She was expected to unveil the Trump administration’s school-choice proposal but offered few details.

She did say it would be “the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” She said states would be able to opt out of the expansion, but it would be “a terrible mistake” to do so. She derided voucher opponents as “flat-earthers” who are trying to keep education in “the Stone Age.”

Across the street from the hotel where DeVos spoke, public-school advocates organized by Indiana teachers’ unions rallied in opposition. (You can watch a video of the rally/news conference posted at 5:31 p.m. Monday on the ISTA Facebook page). They argued that vouchers divert money from public schools to private schools that aren’t accountable to the public and can refuse to enroll children they don’t want. Continue reading

Tax credit scheme ‘more like money laundering’

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will reportedly unveil a proposal for federal private-school scholarship tax credits Monday in Indianapolis. That makes a recent report on the topic especially timely.

The report, “Public Loss, Private Gain: How School Voucher Tax Shelters Undermine Public Education,” was released last week by AASA the School Superintendents Association and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It describes how 17 states, including Indiana, divert $1 billion to tax credits for contributions to private K-12 schools, including religious schools.

Remarkably, nine states provide a 100 percent tax credit for the scholarship donations. Taxpayers who make such donations get back every penny from the state, tax-free. Some can even make a profit on their contribution by claiming an additional deduction on their federal taxes.

Report co-author Carl Davis said that, in those states, donors may not even have a charitable interest in private schools or their students. It’s simply a risk-free scheme to make money while, in some cases, getting around prohibitions on public funding of religious schools.

“I don’t see how you can help but draw the parallel to money laundering,” Davis told Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider in an episode of the “Have You Heard” podcast devoted to the tax credits. “It’s certainly more like money laundering than charitable giving. There’s no charity involved.”

Indiana’s scholarship tax credit is 50 percent; in other words, a taxpayer who donates $1,000 gets back $500, plus any savings from a federal deduction. There is no limit on the size of an individual’s state credit. There is an annual cap on the total tax credits the state will award, but the legislature voted last month to increase it: from $9.5 million this year to $12.5 million next year and $14 million the year after. Continue reading

Finding hope for schools in women’s marches

Education may not have been a central focus for Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington and the supportive marches and rallies across the country, but neither was it missing from the agenda.

I know for a fact that many of the people who gathered at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis were teachers, parents and other avid supporters of public education. And some of the best signs at the marches mocked Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, for her comment about schools needing guns to protect children from grizzly bears.

Sign at the Indiana Statehouse rallyThe solidarity exhibited at the marches and rallies is important, because it’s going to take more than education advocates to push back against the school privatization agenda that Trump and DeVos apparently plan to push. People who believe in justice for women, children, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and others will have to work together for the next four years and beyond.

Trump said during the campaign that he wants to spent $20 billion in federal funds for school vouchers, which pay tuition for students to attend private schools, including religious schools. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and Republican activist, has long pushed for vouchers and religious schools and fought against teachers’ unions and even accountability for charter schools.

Democratic senators made a good start at DeVos’ confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Al Franken exposed that the nominee didn’t seem to know the difference between proficiency and growth on standardized tests. Tim Kaine and Patty Murray revealed her lack of familiarity with federal civil rights law protecting students with disabilities. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hammered her inexperience with higher education and student loans.

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Education secretary nominee backed senator’s campaign

The early 20th century writer and activist Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If he was right, it may be hard to make Indiana’s new Republican senator, Todd Young, understand the danger to public education posed by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of education.

money-coinsDeVos and her family contributed $48,600 to Young’s campaign last year, helping him win election against Democratic former Sen. Evan Bayh. She and several relatives – her husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law – appear to have each given the maximum $5,400 in 2016.

Young sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony on DeVos’ nomination today and will vote on whether to recommend her confirmation.

The DeVos family’s direct contributions to Young’s campaign were a pittance for an election in which more than $30 million was spent by the two sides. Young will no doubt say they won’t be a factor in his vote.

But the family also gave millions of dollars in 2016 to GOP and conservative political action committees, including the National Republican Committee, the Senate Leadership Fund and American Crossroads. Some of those PACs spent millions on nasty political ads trashing Bayh and painting him as a flaming liberal (a joke for Hoosiers who remember his tenure as governor and senator).

The DeVoses have also given generously to four other Republicans on the HELP Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings: $70,200 to Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, $49,900 to Tim Scott of South Carolina and $43,200 each to Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Continue reading

DeVos money big in Indiana politics

News stories about Betsy DeVos, selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next U.S. secretary of education, often say she’s not well known outside of Michigan. But you can bet Indiana Republican legislators know who she is. DeVos money has been key to building the state’s GOP super-majority.

Betsy DeVos chairs the American Federation for Children, which promotes private school vouchers and deregulation of charter schools. According to campaign finance reports, she and her husband and their adult children have given the group’s political action committee over $1.4 million since 2010.

The American Federation for Children PAC also has had big contributions from for-profit charter school companies, hedge fund managers and the Walton family, majority owners of Walmart.

The federation funds school choice initiatives in several states. In Indiana, its on-the-ground affiliate is Hoosiers for Quality Education, formerly Hoosiers for Economic Growth. American Federation for Children has given the advocacy organization $1.2 million since 2010, according to campaign reports.

Hoosiers for Quality Education in turn helped fund the campaigns of Republican candidates for Indiana superintendent of public instruction: It gave $90,000 to Tony Bennett’s losing campaign in 2012 and $130,000 to Jennifer McCormick’s successful campaign this year. But the bulk of the $3 million it has spent on Indiana campaigns since 2008 has gone to GOP candidates for the state House and Senate. Typically, the money is targeted to contests that could be competitive.

Fred Klipsch, the founder of Hoosiers for Quality Education, boasted at an American Federation for Children-sponsored policy summit in 2012 that the group and its allies had spent $4.4 million to push an agenda of vouchers, expanded charter schools and other reforms through the state legislature. Continue reading