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National Commentary

Relentless Effort to Destroy Public Education

Wornie Reed

Relentless Effort to Destroy Public Education

Republicans, with the help of a few misguided Democrats, are hell-bent on destroying public education.

They are moving with deliberate speed to privatize K-12 education through vouchers and charter schools—money from the state education budget funds both programs.

We got started in this direction by President George H. W. Bush. I was invited to the event at the White House in April of 1991 when he unveiled his Education 2000 plan. Knowing that this plan included a federal voucher program and knowing my strong opposition to such a program, friends feared for me, thinking I might be thrown out of the White House for creating a stir in my resistance. But I stayed civil and had a long investigative chat with one of the “experts” who developed Bush’s education plan.

We slowed this movement for a while by defeating Bush for re-election in 1992. But by 2021, there were 27 voucher programs in 16 states. So far, Virginia is not one of those states. However, this position will not continue if the Youngkin administration successfully implements its aggressive plans toward privatization.

We owe the idea of school vouchers to Milton Freidman, the Nobel Laureate who is often called the twentieth century’s most prominent advocate of free markets.

In a famous 1955 essay called “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman proposed a plan for K-12 schooling, where the government would provide the funding, but the schools would be run privately. To accomplish this, Friedman suggested that the government discontinue public schools and give parents or guardians vouchers for each child, to be used to purchase education on the “free market.”

Please note that Friedman made his proposal the year after the 1954 Brown v Board decision as Southern states were beginning their massive resistance.

At the time, Friedman’s idea was too radical even for conservatives. However, in the 1990s, the country had swung a bit to the right. Charter schools and voucher programs became much more popular, and state-funded voucher programs began.


Voucher programs take money out of a state’s education budget and provide these funds to unregulated private schools. That would be objectionable even if these schools offer a better education than the regular public schools; however, they do not. Furthermore, a report from the Center on Education on Policy finds no research support for the idea that students benefit from taxpayer-funded vouchers allowing them to attend private schools.

“Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research” examines 27 studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Florida. Authors Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober write that the studies “have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers.”

The bottom line is there are problems with vouchers.

    • First, funding vouchers undermine a resource-starved public education system.
    • Notably, private schools are not regulated. Therefore, we should not provide state funds to schools that are not held to the same standards as public schools and do not provide transparency regarding the curricular content or students’ achievement levels.
    • Vouchers do not cover the total cost of private school education. Instead, vouchers act as a coupon for more affluent families, discounting the tuition they pay.
    • Let’s be clear, the privatization of public schools through voucher programs discriminates. A recent study, “Dollars to Discriminate: The (un)intended Consequences of School Vouchers,” confirms that voucher programs discriminate based on religion, disability status, sexual orientation, and possibly other factors. This occurs because private schools can exclude people they do not wish to educate.

With all these problems, why do the conservatives push ahead so firmly? The answer probably lies with Milton Friedman’s uncompromising free-market push. He argued for abolishing public education and moving it to the free market system. And that seems to be the objective of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, and their legislative partners.

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