Strategy for Privatizing Public Schools Spelled out by Dick DeVos in 2002 Heritage Foundation Speech
Rachel Tabachnick printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 03, 2011 at 12:05:15 PM EST
Right-wing think tanks have determined that school vouchers are key to eradicating public education and Dick and Betsy DeVos lead the way in execution of the well-funded plan. The money is tracked in two extensive reports on Talk2action [1 and 2]. DeVos video excerpt below fold.

"We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities," Dick DeVos warned in a December 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation. DeVos was introduced by former Secretary of Education William Bennett and then proposed a stealth strategy for promoting school vouchers in state legislatures.  DeVos and his wife Betsy had already spent millions promoting voucher initiatives that were soundly rejected by voters.  Pro-privatization think tanks had concluded that vouchers were the most politically viable way to "dismantle" public schools; the DeVoses persevered.  Dick DeVos introduced his 2002 Heritage Foundation audience to a covert strategy to provide "rewards or consequences" to state legislators, learning from the activities of the Great Lake Education Project (GLEP) initiated by Betsy DeVos. Vouchers should be promoted by local "grass roots" entities and could not be "viewed as only a conservative idea."  DeVos added, "This has got to be the battle.  It will not be as visible."

Ten years later, the DeVos stealth strategy has been implemented and is winning the voucher war in several states.  As recommended to the Heritage Foundation in 2002, the public face of the movement is bipartisan and grass roots, and millions of dollars are poured into media firms to reinforce that image. However, behind the scenes the movement continues to be led by the DeVoses, and the funding used to provide "rewards or consequences" for state legislators continues to be raised from a small group of mega-donors.

Dick DeVos is the son of Richard and Helen DeVos, major funders of the Republican party and of numerous "free market" think tanks.   The DeVos fortune was made through Amway, the multi-tiered home products business. Betsy DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince of Blackwater notoriety and the daughter of Elsa and the late Edgar Prince, major funders of Religious Right political activism.

The 2002 DeVos Speech

In his 2002 speech, DeVos claims that the only remaining defense against school choice programs is the argument that they hurt public schools.  He responds,

"What is the purpose of a school today?  Because if the purpose is to educate children, how can we hurt it [public education] anymore than it's already hurting.  If the purpose of schools is to provide employment security for teachers and administrators then that pretty much defines the priority of a system that ought to die because it's not serving our children."

DeVos maps out a four-point strategy for advancing publicly financed parental choice programs.

  1. "Clarification of the Blaine Amendment"
    DeVos argues that these amendments are blocking the field of play.  He credits the Institute of Justice for fighting the state Blaine Amendments.  (Blaine Amendments were adopted in a majority of states and forbid the use of public funds for sectarian institutions.)  
  2. "Communicate the message that school choice works and helps public schools."
     DeVos then qualifies his statement by asking the audience to quit using the term public schools and use "government schools" or "government-run schools" instead.
  3. "We need to target our ability at state level to deliver rewards and consequences to legislators on school choice issues."
    DeVos later describes Michigan's example for fighting the battle at the state level and in state legislatures.
  4. "Better coordinate the efforts among school reform groups."

DeVos describes the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) led by Betsy DeVos, which he states personally interviewed 140 political candidates in Michigan to assess their attitudes toward education reform and to provide for "rewards and consequences."  DeVos credited this effort for reducing the Michigan House Republicans in the anti-reform group from six to two and for injecting school choice into political debate.  "Candidates were forced to establish positions on educational reform," states DeVos describing the need for "rewards and consequences" for state legislators.

[Transcript of this 2:24 minute segment of the speech is below the video. Full speech at link. ]

Transcript of the above video segment:

"Where's the battle going to be fought, for the future? In my view it will be, and at this point it needs to be, fought at the state level--utilizing vehicles such as GLEP and others nationally but ideally these organizations must be constructed locally. They need to be constructed with individuals such as the staff we had in Michigan, who were intelligent and connected with the local grassroots politics of what was going on, that had the relationships, the insights, and the political sensitivity to know what was happening. 
 
And so while those of us on the national level can give support, we need to encourage the development of these organizations on a state-by-state basis, in order to be able to offer a political consequence, for opposition, and political reward, for support of, education reform issues. 
 
That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise. 
 
And so we've got a wonderful issue that can work for Americans. But to the extent that it is appropriated or viewed as only a conservative idea it will risk not getting a clear and a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. So we do need to be cautious about that. 
 
We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities. Many of the activities and the political work that needs to go on will go on at the grass roots. It will go on quietly and it will go on in the form that often politics is done - one person at a time, speaking to another person in privacy. And so these issues will not be, maybe, as visible or as noteworthy, but they will set a framework within states for the possibility of action on education reform issues."

DeVos described the opportunity states as:  Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado and Virginia.  He adds South Carolina and New Hampshire as possibilities and proceeds with a "tier two" list of Utah, Arizona, Washington D.C., and Ohio.  He bemoans that Michigan is not on the list despite all of their efforts and blames the state's constitution and organized resistance.  "When the time comes we will bring the fight back to Michigan again," he adds.

The Role of Right-Wing Think Tanks in the Pro-Voucher, Pro-Privatization Movement

Further insight to the agenda of the voucher movement can be found in the policy papers of right-wing think tanks heavily funded by several DeVos family foundations as well as the foundations of the Koch, Scaife, Walton, Bradley, and other families. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, has received over $21 million from the Sarah Scaife Foundation alone.

In a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy titled 1 Billion for Ideas:  Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, 20 leading right-wing think tanks were described as spending a billion dollars on  "anti-government and unregulated markets agenda."  The report states,

"These policy groups have pushed aggressively to privatize Social Security and Medicare, loosen laws governing workplace safety and the rights of workers to organize, roll back environmental and consumer safety regulations, [...] privatize systems of public education..."
A primary focus of many right-wing think tanks is the privatization of public education and several of their leaders have signed a publicly posted proclamation calling for the end of "government involvement in education."

The Cato Institute is heavily funded by the Scaife, Koch, Bradley and Lambe Foundations. In the Cato Institute's Policy Analysis 269, Joe Bast, president of the Heartland Foundation states in a section of the paper titled "The Goal: Complete Separation of School and State."


"Vouchers Are the Way to Separate School and State

Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime."

Bast spells out the agenda,

"Vouchers zero in on the government school monopoly's most vulnerable point: the distinction between government financing and government delivery of service. People who accept the notion that schooling is an entitlement will nevertheless vote to allow private schools to compete with one another for public funds. That fact gives us the tool we need to undercut the organizing ability of teachers' unions, and hence their power as a special-interest group.

...Because we know how the government schools perpetuate themselves, we can design a plan to dismantle them."


The plan was designed in think tanks funded by Koch, Scaife, Bradley, Olin and other mega-donors, but the execution at the state level has been the project of Dick and Betsy DeVos.

This is an article in an ongoing series on the DeVos-led campaign to privatize schools.

Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on PA Public Schools
http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/20/232844/831

Pro-Voucher Astroturfing Campaigns Across Nation Coordinated by DeVos, Funded by a Few Mega-Donors
http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/24/22559/1547

Betsy DeVos Announces PA Governor Tom Corbett Will Keynote Pro-Voucher National Policy Summit
http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/26/112152/230

Protesters Object to School Privatization Efforts of DeVos, Michelle Rhee and PA and WI Governors
http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/10/212833/674/




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