By Glen Ford / Black Agenda Report

President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with students at Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla. (Shealah Craighead / Wikimedia Commons)

The nation’s only federally funded private school voucher program, foisted on the overwhelming Black student population of Washington, D.C., by the George Bush administration in 2004, inflicts negative effects on student achievement levels, according to a new study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Low-income students who were selected by lottery to receive the taxpayer-funded “scholarships” performed 7.3 percent worse on math and 4.9 percent lower in reading than students from similar backgrounds who remained in public schools because they did not make the lottery pick. Parents of voucher kids seemed oblivious to their children’s relative underachievement, but believed the private schools they attended were “very safe, compared with the parents of students not selected for the scholarship offer” – confirming ample anecdotal evidence that safety concerns are at the root of much pro “school choice” sentiment in the Black community.

If President Trump gets his budget passed, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the billionaire school privatizer who was rescued from rejection by the Senate by only one vote, will have an additional $250 million to fund private school voucher programs in Washington and, she hopes, the 13 states that currently finance their own voucher schemes. Trump proposes an overall increase of $1.4 billion for school voucher and charter programs, with the goal of ramping it up to $20 billion — while immediately cutting the total federal education budget by $9 billion, or 13 percent.

Neither facts nor democracy have been allowed to stand in the way of the school privatizers. Polls showed 85 percent of Black residents and three-quarters of D.C. voters of all ethnicities opposed vouchers in late 2002, as did most local elected officials. The exception was Mayor Anthony Williams, whose avowed mission was to draw more “middle class” residents to the nation’s capital through “quality education.” (When Williams declared that Washington could easily accommodate 200,000 new residents, everyone knew he wasn’t talking about additional Black people. By the 2010 Census, D.C. had lost its Black majority.) In 2004, Williams endorsed the Republican plan to impose an “experimental,” five-year private school vouchers program on Washington, using Congress’s unique powers over the District to make it the only federally funded vouchers scheme in the nation. “We had never had a locally elected black official, a Democrat from a city like D.C., asking for something like this before,” said Shokraii Rees, an operative for George Bush’s Department of Education. “That’s the single strongest factor that got people’s attention.”

Most of the nation’s Black Democrats opposed vouchers, as did large majorities of the Black rank-and-file, because of the scheme’s roots in Jim Crow-era white “segregation academies.” Never in history have Black Americans marched, rallied or petitioned for private school vouchers. Therefore, the corporate privatizers had to create a Black pro-voucher “movement” out of thin air — or rather, through the political “astro-turfing” power of their checkbooks. In 1999, some of the most right-wing foundations and fat cats in the nation spent millions to found the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which then tapped into additional millions in direct federal funding once George Bush won the presidency. Among the BAEO’s founders was the first-term Newark, New Jersey, city councilman, Cory Booker, a true believer in privatized education who helped operate two private schools and evangelized about forming a national movement to spread the “choice” gospel. (See “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree,” The Black Commentator, April 5, 2002.)

While rising steadily in Black Democratic politics, Cory Booker was also a star in the right-wing corporate political firmament, serving for ten years with the American Federation for Children, a leading school voucher and charter advocacy outfit founded by Betsy DeVos, and chaired by her until last year.

Booker joined all of the Senate’s Democrats in voting against Devos’ confirmation, claiming he had problems with her positions on school safety issues. It is surely true that Booker’s efforts to distance himself from his private school voucher roots have a lot do with his presidential ambitions. But, much more importantly, vouchers have long been eclipsed by charters as the most effective means of wholesale privatization of public education. As two-term mayor of Newark, Cory Booker was largely responsible for boosting charters to one-third of total school enrollment. Charters now account for 44 percent of Washington, D.C., public school enrollment, while voucher schools serve only a small fraction of the city’s students.

Corporate America, the real force behind school privatization, found its education champion in Barack Obama, whose “Race to the Top” program coerced states across the nation to create a “market” for charter schools, which tap directly into the public school funding money-stream.

A true troglodyte from the “segregation academy” school of politics, Donald Trump wants to throw billions of dollars at private voucher schools. He and DeVos will doubtless do a lot of damage with their voucher schemes, but the main thrust of privatization will continue to be the methodical construction of an alternative — and, in much of Black America, dominant — charter school system that is accountable only to its managers and corporate service providers.

Voucher schools are small-scale privatization. Charters are the corporate Mother Lode.

Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].

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