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Sanders Report Reveals Right-Wing Billionaires’ Aim to Sabotage Public Education

Public schools are underfunded as voucher programs to subsidize private schools with taxpayer dollars surge.

Then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Appropriations Committee's Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2020.

Sen. Bernie Sanders released a report Tuesday detailing how right-wing billionaires are bankrolling coordinated efforts to privatize U.S. public education by promoting voucher programs that siphon critical funding away from already-underresourced public schools.

The report notes that last year, the American Federation for Children (AFC) — an organization funded by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — “ousted state lawmakers in Iowa and Arkansas who resisted proposals to subsidize private education in states and passed expansive private school vouchers.”

Aided by millions of dollars in funding from DeVos and her husband, “AFC’s political affiliates and allies spent $9 million to win 277 out of 368 races to remove at least 40 incumbent lawmakers,” the report adds.

The DeVos family is hardly alone in using its wealth to undercut U.S. public education. The Bradley Foundation, which has been knee-deep in efforts to privatize education in Wisconsin and across the country, spent $7.5 million in 2022 “to fund 34 state affiliates of the State Policy Network to push conservative policy agendas, including privatizing education, and $8.3 million to building a youth movement to ‘win the American Culture War.'”

“The Koch-sponsored group, American Encore, has funneled substantial amounts into state governor races and ballot initiatives around the country, including more than $1.4 million to elect Arizona’s former governor Doug Ducey in 2014 (who led the efforts to create the nation’s first universal private school voucher),” the report adds.

The analysis also names billionaires Jess Yass of Susquehanna International Group, Richard Uihlein of Uline, and Bernard Marcus of Home Depot, all of whom have recently donated to the School Freedom Fund — a PAC that supports voucher programs and shuttering the U.S. Education Department.

School voucher programs disproportionately benefit wealthy families, analyses have shown, while undercutting the goal of serving all students within a community.

“Over the past decade, there has been a coordinated effort on the part of right-wing billionaires to undermine, dismantle, and sabotage our nation’s public schools and to privatize our education system,” Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in a statement. ” That is absolutely unacceptable.”

“We can no longer tolerate billionaires and multinational corporations receiving massive tax breaks and subsidies while children in America are forced to go to understaffed, underresourced, and underfunded public schools,” Sanders continued. “On this 70th anniversary year of Brown v. Board of Education, let us recommit to creating an education system that works for all of our people, not just the wealthy few.”

The new report, authored by the Senate HELP Committee’s majority staff, comes days after Sanders presided over a hearing at which a pair of public school teachers decried the low educator pay and lack of resources plaguing schools across the U.S. and threatening the foundations of the country’s public education system.

The committee’s report shows that while most states have chronically underfunded their public schools, spending on voucher programs that subsidize private schools with taxpayer dollars has surged across the country. Between 2008 and 2019, according to a recent analysis cited in the report, Florida ramped up spending on voucher programs by 313% while “decreasing per-pupil funding of public schooling by 12%.”

“The expansion of private school voucher programs forces very real tradeoffs. Money spent on private school vouchers could instead be used to hire teachers, raise wages, hire school counselors, and invest in high-quality academics for students,” reads the new report, which estimates that “Arizona could hire 15,730 more public K-12 teachers with the money it is instead spending on private school vouchers.”

The report calls on Congress to help reverse the trend of billionaire-backed school privatization by investing more in public education — including early childhood education and community schools — and by passing Sanders’ legislation to set the pay floor for U.S. public school teachers at $60,000 a year.

The report also recommends passage of the College for All Act, a Sanders-led bill that would make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students from households making less than $250,000 a year.

“As the richest country in history, the United States should have the best education system in the world,” Sanders’ report reads. “Our public education system is not perfect — it is underfunded and racially and socioeconomically segregated. Our educators are not respected or paid nearly what they deserve.”

“Massive tax breaks to the wealthiest people and largest corporations are being prioritized over opportunities to progressively raise revenue to support social services and public education,” the report continues. “Instead of siphoning money and increasing tax breaks to subsidize private education, we have a responsibility to ensure all students have access to quality K-12 education. This requires adequate and equitable funding and addressing structural challenges in our public schools.”

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