Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, has engaged in voucher research for two decades. Recently, he realized that the people and groups funding school privatization are the same as those funding other anti-democratic, extremist causes.

He writes:

There’s an old saying that “friends are the family we choose.”

The idea is that none of us played a part in the manner in whichwe were born or raised. We can’t help which city or state or country we grew up in, or whether we had two married parents or parents who divorced, whether one or both of our parents were straight or gay or whether we were only or adopted children. We can’t help which religious tradition—if any—we were raised in although we can decide for ourselves what we believe as adults.

Eventually we come to be known—and to know ourselves—by the company we choose to keep.

I spend a substantial amount of time these days talking to reporters about education policy—not just school privatization but other issues I work on like teacher retention or issues like the dreadful “read or fail” law that Michigan adopted during its Florida-mimicry days. I have a lot of experience trying to explain complicated policy areas to lay readers and writers.

By far and away the most difficult task in that activity has been explaining just how extreme, fringe and even dangerous much of the advocacy around school privatization and school vouchers actually is.

Others have reported at length how artificial the so-called “parents’ rights” groups are, but the drum that needs to be constantly tapped is that the real goal of a voucher system or its latest incarnation of “Education Freedom” is entirely radical.

Let’s walk through it.

First, when we talk about vouchers—or “scholarships” as they’re almost universally euphemized—we’re talking about a policy that’s had catastrophic impacts on student achievement. I’ve written about this here on Diane’s page and in media outlets across the country. You have to look to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on test scores, or to Hurricane Katrina, to find comparable harm to academics. Vouchers are a man-made disaster, and yet the intellectual and political drivers, from Betsy DeVos to Jay Greene, are the same people who were pushing for these policies 25 years ago.

That’s one form of extremism. DeVos herself admitted the Louisiana voucher program—where voucher test score drops were nearly double what COVID did—was “not very well-conceived.” If spending decades and millions of dollars on a policy that did that kind of harm isn’t dangerously radical, I don’t know what is.

But that kind of idolatry-level obsession with a particular public policy begins to make more sense when we look at the other forms of fanatism that voucher activists have linked up with in their organizing.

There’s election denial, for one thing. Voucher activism and research is funded by groups like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—a key player in the Big Lie push to undermine confidence in the 2020 presidential outcomes. That foundation’s Board Secretary Cleta Mitchell has a starring role in the recently released January 6th Committee Report.

In a way that’s fitting. Vouchers work for kids like Donald Trump won the 2020 election. You have to suspend reality to believe either.

Next, there’s the extreme level of cruelty that voucher activists are increasingly embracing to push toward their goals. The Right-wing voucher-pushing Heritage Foundation has been pumping out screed after screed on topics ranging from book bans to diversity to transgender health care in its explicit exploitation of culture war divisions, and has all-but-encouraged the framing of public school educators as enemies to parents.

So right there that’s election denialism, anti-transgender, anti-diversity and book-banning marching arm and arm with school vouchers.

Add to that Greg Abbott’s busing of migrants to frigid northern cities on Christmas Eve and Ron DeSantis’s similar human trafficking this summer. Abbott is leading the privatization push in Texas with the help of Betsy DeVos staffers, and under DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay policies, Florida voucher schools are newly empowered to reject LGBTQ kids and parents on the taxpayer dime.

Add further an opposition to reproductive rights. In Michigan for example, the DeVos-backed voucher initiative was led by the same political operatives running the campaign against our constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to choose, and an amendment against voter rights expansions all at the same time!

None of this is an accident. The push to privatize education isfundamentally an effort to discriminate against vulnerable children and to undermine civic institutions ranging from public schools themselves to democratic elections. It’s that extreme.

But really, none of this is new. Many of the younger reporters I talk to have no idea that the voucher movement actually began as part of the South’s “massive resistance” to integration ordered by the Brown v Board of Education decision.

In that sense, it’s hardly surprising that today’s voucher backers want to expel LGBTQ children and lean into book bans all in the name of “values.” As the author William Faulkner once said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

One of the tricks that advocates for school vouchers and other forms of privatization have been able to pull over the last two decades is to make the erosion of public education seem moderate—even reasonable.

But whether clinging for decades to a voucher policy failure that’s unprecedented in modern education, clinging in the same spirit to a failed presidential candidate’s baseless claims of an electoral victory, or a steadied push to stoke cruelty toward children as a means to an end, the school privatization movement and with it the Right’s attacks on public education are some of the most extreme forces operating today in American politics.

Extreme, and ultimately very dangerous. Defending public schools is becoming increasingly a movement to defend human rights.