Mike Pence is a hardcore right-winger playing the long game, especially when it comes to privatizing public schools.
It’s not just that the Republican vice-presidential nominee and Indiana governor told a roomful of deregulation-obsessed executives and lobbyists in Indianapolis, “You are the model for Washington, DC, after this election. You really are.”
The nation is “at a fork in the road,” Pence said at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting, referring not only to who would be president for the next four years but who would control the Supreme Court for the “next 40 years.”
The choice is “whether we will have justices appointed to the Supreme Court, as my partner in this endeavor is committed to doing, that reflect the brilliance and the greatness and the principles of the late justice Antonin Scalia,” he said. “So I would say to all of you, for the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of the sanctity of life, for the sake of our Second Amendment and all of our God-given liberties, we must ensure that the next president making appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States of America is President Donald Trump.”
Pence was no stranger to the stage of ALEC, a corporate-funded behemoth that drafts bills and finds right-wing lawmakers to carry them. He’s been an ALEC fixture for years, touting deregulation, privatization and extreme social conservatism. But he’s best-known for a personal focus on supplanting traditional public education, notably embracing taxpayer-funded vouchers so parents can send kids to K-12 private schools and aggressively expanding privately run charter public schools.
As is typical at ALEC, Pence praised enterprise and deregulation, and said a Trump administration would result in “empowering states with resources and flexibility.” But a closer look at his Indiana record of privatizing education, where the ALEC model has been in play, has shown it to be a brazen and failed experiment.
Charter School and Voucher Problems
A recent National Public Radio profile of Pence’s education record noted that he has been one of the leading governors pushing K-12 privatization. “Under Gov. Pence, the growth in the number of charter schools and the use of private school vouchers have exploded,” it said. “After the voucher program survived a state Supreme Court challenge in 2013, it’s grown into one of the largest in the country. Pence helped to do that by advocating to expand the program to include middle-income, not just low-income families, and also by removing the cap on how many students qualify.”
Yet this May, when WTHR, Indianapolis’ NBC-TV affiliate, looked at the charter school experiment, it found that “nearly half of the state’s 76 charter schools are doing poorly or failing.” The scores were based on the state’s new accountability standards.
In one example, reporters quoted sources from Indiana Science Academy West who said, “Nothing is taught… nothing is learned,” and cited “unlicensed teachers,” high staff turnover and a textbook shortage. But under Indiana law, it noted, “Those [charters] failing year after year, not only get a second chance but can fail six consecutive years before the state steps in.”
That investigative report was not unique, but it is quite a counterpoint to the rhetoric from Pence and the K-12 privatization movement that traditional schools are failing and that charters and vouchers are the answer.
At ALEC, the education agenda also includes tax credits to send children to private schools, impeding and dismantling labor unions, and creating new state agencies to overrule locally elected school boards and communities. Soon after Pence gave a keynote at a 2013 ALEC summit, the group published its annual “Report Card on American Education.”
Pence wrote the 2014 report’s introduction, boasting, “We enacted the most ambitious school choice program in the country in 2011. Last year, nearly 20,000 low-income Hoosiers used vouchers, or what we call Choice Scholarships, to attend the school of their choice — a 500 percent increase from the year before. This year the number of applications has grown to nearly 30,000. In addition to the School Choice Scholarships, more than 35,000 Indiana students are attending public charter schools across our state.”
But Indiana’s record on vouchers has been problematic. A May 2016 Brookings Institution report on vouchers in Indiana and Louisiana slammed the programs. In both states, “research… has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large.”
Moreover, traditional public schools were doing a better job than voucher counterparts when it came to educating poorer students. “It is at least plausible that Louisiana and Indiana public schools have surpassed their private schools (for low-income students),” Brookings said.
Nonetheless, this year Pence is spending more money on vouchers than his state legislature appropriated, underscoring his zealotry as a pro-privatization ideologue.
Protecting Investors, Not Students
Meanwhile, under Pence the state has gone out of its way to keep failing charters from closing. Like many states that have granted the industry wide license, under Pence the various players in his state’s charter sector — a mix of private and public institutions — don’t want to close failing schools but instead look for new managers to run the schools and new regulators to sign off.
One Indiana public radio station, WFYI, called this tactic “authorizer shopping.” The highest-profile example was Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary, Indiana, where problems ranged from low student test scores to deep governance issues, such as high staff turnover, not satisfying federal education standards and no terms for charter board members.
As WFYI reported this year, in 2013 seven “chronically failing schools were denied reauthorization from Ball State [University, their founding sponsor], yet three of the schools were granted new charters from a different authorizer to remain open.” That led the legislature to pass a law to require the state Board of Education to approve any such reprieve, a policy that sounds like state accountability but in practice minimizes input from locally elected school boards. The state Board approved it in June.
But the negative impacts of these privatization experiments go beyond vouchers and charter schools. Diverting millions of taxpayer dollars to private, often religious schools takes resources away from traditional public schools. Pence, additionally, has created new state low-interest loans to benefit charters, and his last state budget included a new $1,500-per-student allocation to charters for non-academic expenses. His GOP majority legislature scaled it back to $500 per student.
According to The Washington Post, the cumulative negative impacts of privatization have created a shortage of qualified public school teachers in Indiana. “What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy,” the Post’s education blogger wrote last year.
“According to the Indianapolis Star, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees have asked General Assembly leaders to approve having the legislative education study committee review what is causing the drop and how the state could respond,” the Post continued. “For one thing, they can look in the mirror. The Republican leadership of the state — including Gov. Mike Pence — showed their respect for teachers by working very hard this year to strip power from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a veteran educator who won election to the post in 2012 (by defeating Tony Bennett, the incumbent who was a protege of former Florida governor Jeb Bush). Oh, by the way, she is a Democrat.”
The pattern under Pence continues. Under the state’s new public school funding formula, richer school districts will get more money and poorer districts less, another education blogger noted. WaPo’s education blogger summed it up like this: “For 2015-17, the state legislature gave less funding to urban schools and more to charter schools and private schools that accept students with vouchers.”
In other words, while Pence preaches privatization as the cure-all for K-12 education, his state’s traditional school system is being undermined and supplanted, and the privateers’ gains are the public’s losses.
In recent years, Pence has been a featured speaker at libertarian forums to promote this agenda; audiences love the rhetoric but pay little attention to the resulting reality on the ground. Before Pence was named Trump’s running mate, he attended a Republican Governors Association luncheon at David Koch’s mansion in Florida with “about 60 wealthy backers.” And since joining the ticket, he was a “featured guest” at the Koch brothers network’s semiannual libertarian donor retreat in Colorado.
Which means Pence has become perhaps the nation’s top evangelist for ALEC and education privateers across America.