Betsy DeVos Is Still Undermining Public Schools. Next Target: Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Betsy DeVos is using the chaos of COVID-19 to push a voucher scheme that would force public schools to compete for students to stay open. After conquering LA, DeVos and friends aim to take the plan nationwide.

Betsy DeVos listens during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House on March 27, 2020. Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The funding plan currently before the Los Angeles School Board goes by two names. Supporters call it “Student Centered Funding,” while union educators and parent advocates know it as “the Betsy DeVos voucher scheme.”

Not content to retire from the school privatization business, Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has teamed up with the American Legislative Council (ALEC) to pilot a new school voucher scheme in Los Angeles. The plan would send funds directly to school sites instead of ensuring a centrally enforced foundation of programs, educators, and staff at every school. This restructuring of allocations would set a precedent that could be duplicated across the nation.

If the Los Angeles School Board passes the plan at its meeting tomorrow, funding for each school would be determined by calculating a specific dollar amount for every student in the district, with differing dollar amounts assigned based on individual student characteristics such as disability and language status. Wherever the student attends, their “backpack of cash” would go with them. Under-attended schools would thus be vulnerable to underfunding and closure.

Currently, schools receive a baseline of staff, programs, and supplies that ensures the school can stay operational and provide adequate educational services. If DeVos’s plan passes, they would primarily receive money based on enrollment instead. Like privately owned businesses competing for customers, schools would have to compete for students in order to stay afloat. Schools struggling with enrollment numbers would have to make cuts to educational programs, and/or eventually close. After implementation of Chicago’s school voucher plan, the number of school librarians in the city plummeted from 460 to 123 in less than ten years.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) would be the first and only district in the nation to bundle their federal funds into these unique “backpacks of cash,” but the nonlocal actors pushing the plan are hoping it won’t be the last. The potential passage of the plan in Los Angeles therefore has implications for the future of public education nationwide.

When Chicago enacted its version of a school voucher system, the scheme shuttered neighborhood public schools left families to fend for themselves.

“This is an attack on kids of color and minority communities,” said Chicago Public Schools student Styles Avant Pinkston in conversation with the organization We Are Public Schools. “You never hear about schools in wealthy white neighborhoods shutting down — they invest in those schools. Schools can be turned around if they want to. If they see value in doing that. They just don’t see the value in those communities. The way to change this, you have to fund. You don’t hear about white schools closing. If it’s struggling, they get resources. They aren’t allowed to fail.”

Textbook Disaster Capitalism

In Los Angeles, proponents of the DeVos-backed voucher scheme are bringing it for a vote while LAUSD teachers, staff, students, and families are navigating challenging school reopenings in the midst of the Delta variant surge. The pandemic has been devastating and disorienting for many LAUSD families and educators, which has created an opportunity for privatizers to advance the Student Centered Funding (SCF) plan without much notice.

It’s a standard technique. In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the process of private interests taking advantage of natural disasters to push their agendas, a phenomenon she calls “disaster capitalism.” While working-class people are at their most vulnerable and disorganized, privatizers are able to drain tax dollars out of public goods and funnel them into the private sector with minimal opposition. Within a year of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for example, all traditional neighborhood public schools were closed, and it became the most privatized school system in the United States. Charter schools now dominate New Orleans.

LAUSD’s democratically elected school board has not made a decision on the plan, but looking at the district’s website gives a different impression. The district appears to present SCF as an active policy, rather than a proposal pending passage by the school board. The board of the second largest school district in the country appears to have already lined up behind the plan and is shirking transparency at best.

Los Angeles public schools are already under heavy fire from education privatizers. One of the nation’s most proactive and effective proponents of charter schools, the late billionaire Eli Broad, was a Los Angeles resident and routinely pressed his thumb on the scale of local education policy. As of last year, Los Angeles had 277 charter schools, more than any school district in the nation. In addition to taking funds from neighborhood public schools, which serve predominantly working-class students and families of color, charters have a history of mismanagement of public dollars, lack of accountability to taxpayers, and are shown to increase racial segregation in schools.

Now it appears that privatizers are swiftly advancing on another frontier in their war on neighborhood public schools — and their opposition is disorganized. The voucher plan is being pushed at a time when pediatric hospitalizations have reached new heights, especially since children under the age of twelve cannot get vaccinated, causing fear and confusion for students, parents, and teachers. Meanwhile, families that depend the most on traditional neighborhood public schools have been focused on navigating the economic realities of the pandemic, including an increase in the cost of living, job loss, impending evictions, and the difficulties of securing safe childcare.

The city’s teacher’s union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), is calling on teachers and parents to oppose the voucher scheme. Last Friday, parents, teachers, and students held a press conference at Monroe High School to call on school board president Kelly Gonez to vote no on SCF.

“It threatens everything that makes our school work,” said an LAUSD parent named Felicidad who spoke at the press conference. “Title-I programs would be at risk. My child is not a backpack full of cash. My child and every student deserves a well-funded school.”

Betsy DeVos and friends are hoping that Los Angeles parents and teachers won’t be able to muster enough opposition to compel the school board to vote down the plan. But if any city can overcome the odds to beat back disaster capitalism, it might be Los Angeles, which has a recent history of militancy in defense of public education.

Fifty thousand educators, parents, and supporters flooded the streets during the 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike. For the sake of public education in Los Angeles and beyond, opponents of the voucher plan will need to harness some of that fighting energy again.