John Thompson is a teacher and historian in Oklahoma.



As the Daily Oklahoman’s Ben Felder explains, “Education savings accounts (ESAs) and vouchers have not been easy sells, including in the GOP-controlled Oklahoma Legislature.” Until this November, the same argument which defeated vouchers last year would have seemed to be persuasive. Our schools have been clobbered by a 27% decrease in per-student funding and they can’t stand a further reduction. Even a month ago, a grassroots coalition of educators and families appeared ready to send more teachers to the legislature, and to pass SQ 779, which would have raised teachers’ wages.


Then a well-funded and false advertising campaign helped derail the teacher raise, and Betsy DeVos’ the American Federation for Children, “spent nearly $170,000 in Oklahoma campaigns this year, often in opposition to public school teachers who were also running.” So, Felder now reports, “last month’s election results on both the national and state level have some school choice advocates seeing a political opening.” He cites Republican Sen. Kyle Loveless, “‘There is definitely going to be some movement on education savings accounts this next year in Oklahoma … Last year we were a couple of votes short in the Senate but I think we picked those seats up this year.'”


In addition to American Federation of Children’s money, a series of Indiana corporate reformers have repeatedly come to Oklahoma and pushed the DeVos/Trump/Pence agenda. So, it is doubly important that Oklahoma legislators, like their counterparts across the nation, become aware of what former Gov. Mike Pence and the $1.3 million that DeVos and her political action committee poured into Indiana have bought – and at what price.


Chalkbeat Indiana’s Nicholas Garcia, in “Six Things to Know about Indiana’s School Voucher Program, A Possible Model for Ed Sec Nominee Betsy DeVos,” explains that “the number of students using vouchers rose from 3,911 in 2011, when the program launched, to 32,686 in 2016.” Originally, vouchers were pushed as a way to help poor students in failing schools, but “a growing portion of Indiana voucher users are from middle-class families, and growth has been greatest among suburban families.” Now, “60 percent of Indiana voucher users are white, and about 31 percent are from middle-income families — not exactly the student population that struggles most in the state’s schools.”


Even more disturbing is the way that vouchers have grown into a greater threat to the financial stability of schools, “In 2011, just 9 percent of voucher users had never before gone to public school, Chalkbeat reports, “That was true for more than half of students using vouchers in 2016. So, Indiana isn’t offering an escape from failing schools but a subsidy for many who would never attend a public school.


Moreover, researchers at Notre Dame University conducted a long-term study which found that “students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse in math.” They also increase student mobility which undermines student performance.


Of course, student performance outcomes aren’t the outcomes that motivate many voucher advocates. DeVos has said that her goal is not to “stay in our own faith territory,” but to “advance God’s Kingdom.” As Politico’s Benjamin Wermund reports, DeVos sees school choice as a path to “greater Kingdom gain.”


Given the importance of religious issues in the voucher fights, an analysis by Mother Jones’s Stephanie Mencimer is timely. She found that, “Pence’s voucher program ballooned into a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools–ranging from those teaching the Koran to Christian schools teaching creationism and the Bible as literal truth–at the expense of regular and usually better-performing public schools.”


Mencimer looked into the 316 schools receiving vouchers and she could only find four that weren’t religious. However, she found curricula that teaches creationism and Biblical stories and parables as literally true. Mencimer learned:


Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, “the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies.”


Moreover, Mother Jones cites a young Muslim student who attended a voucher school for about eight weeks, “as he bounced around several schools on his way to becoming radicalized. In September, he was indicted for providing material support to terrorists after allegedly trying to join ISIS.”


Mother Jones further describes the deplorable student performance of many voucher schools. In 2015, less than 9 percent of the students at a Horizon Christian Academy campus passed the state standardized tests in math and English. And it adds telling details to the Chalkbeat Indiana’s narrative. Mother Jones found:


Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.


It’s bad enough that Trump seeks billions of dollars to fund vouchers. But, especially in poor states and districts, the DeVos/Trump/Pence policy could be worse than anything previously imagined. Not all states and school districts that have been targeted by Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos are as vulnerable as those in Oklahoma, but as a recent NPR report explains, there are plenty of other systems that are already overwhelmed.


KOSU’s Emily Wendler and WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook, in “Public School Funding at a Loss, in Oklahoma and Elsewhere,” started a national tour of under-funded and challenged school systems to first answer the question “How Low Can a State Go?” and still educate its kids. Second, it asks what effect DeVos will have on these underfunded systems.


Other states have taken the route pioneered by Kansas, Michigan, and Oklahoma and deliberately starve their governmental services. This new voucher campaign, combined with public and private charters, and virtual schools could push many of those states across a “tipping point,” and creating new lows in public schooling, constitutional democracy, and common decency.