Beware of School Choice in Wyoming

By on July 3, 2018

A billionaire is making her rounds across the state to diminish the merit of public schools and introduce charters

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers have been pushing “school choice” for years. The movement seeks to defund and dismantle traditional public education and replace it with a model that, in some combination, relies on charter schools, vouchers, religious schools, homeschooling, and other decentralized, mainly private institutions to educate our youth.

Susan Gore wants to privatize education in Wyoming. But when some of those schools fail, students would fail with them, Nate Martin argues. (Wyoming Liberty Group)

Betsy DeVos, a right-wing billionaire and the U.S. Secretary of Education, and Foster Friess, a right-wing billionaire running a strong campaign for Wyoming governor—are both staunch school choice proponents. That has perhaps emboldened another right-wing billionaire to introduce the movement to the Cowboy State.

Susan Gore, heiress to the vast Gore-Tex fortune, is the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group. The think tank promotes policies to defund and otherwise break down public services and infrastructure in Wyoming, notably schools and education. It’s no coincidence that the decade-old organization’s existence has overlapped with a sharp rightward shift in state politics.

On Tuesday, the WLG launched the first installment of a seven-part event series called “Parents Unite!” It was the public debut of the school choice movement in Wyoming. Speaking to an audience at the Cheyenne public library (and livestreamed on Facebook), Gore explained that “Parents Unite!” is the WLG’s way of offering institutional support and resources for Wyoming parents who want to advocate for school choice—unsurprisingly, the billionaire-backed think tank wants to put parents’ faces and voices at the front of the fight.

Gore’s talk began the same way all talks about school choice do: by disparaging public schools. They’re not teaching kids to read, Gore claimed, despite her own acknowledgement that Wyoming’s reading scores far surpass the national average. Plus, she said, there’s not enough discipline in public schools—kids are running wild.

Gore lavished praise on Nick Avila, who recently came to Cheyenne to help launch the city’s single charter school, Poder Academy. Gore said that she admired Avila’s disciplinarian approach to education. This is despite the fact that Poder Academy’s founder (and Avila’s boss), Marcos Martinez, recently fled Colorado after resigning as director of a charter school there in the face of widespread abuse complaints.

School choice advocates call for various specific outcomes. But the general gist is that school systems should operate according to free-market principles. Under school choice, anyone can start and run a school, and parents have the option to pick where to send their kids. Official charter schools receive public funding and donor support, but “bad” schools are punished with budget cuts. This punishment is meant to incentivize “bad” schools to do better—but of course that doesn’t work. DeVos memorably failed to explain in a 60 Minutes interview why people should support school choice as academic performance has crumbled in Michigan, her home state, since the system was introduced.

Gore said parents face two problems when it comes to Wyoming schools. First, our pesky state constitution says that Wyoming shall have “a complete and uniform system of public education.”  This prevents us from having the hodgepodge of wonky “individualized” institutions that charter school systems promote—Avila’s former school, for instance, focused on tennis and chess.

The second problem Gore described is at the heart of the “school choice” movement: public schools can’t teach Christian education.

In states that have adopted “school choice,” religious private schools receive what they have long coveted: taxpayer funding. Vice President Pence led the way in bringing “school choice” to Indiana while he was governor. As a result, private Christian schools there received upwards of $145 million last year in state financing.

Gore and the “school choice” crowd argue that depriving Christian schools of public funding is discriminatory because in a way, secularism is its own religion.

“The question is: Is a secular education neutral?” Gore said. “And my opinion is no, it’s not—it’s corrosive. It’s another worldview. But somehow it has taken over our schools.”

Since Wyoming doesn’t fund religious education, 39 of the state’s 41 private schools are Christian, Gore said. Under school choice, these schools would receive taxpayer funding and be open to more students.

The problem with school choice is not simply that any yahoo with money can start and run a school, hire unqualified people to teach, and run their operation like a boot camp. I lived in New Orleans for five years after Hurricane Katrina and saw the rise of the nation’s first all-charter school district. Some schools were good, but many were not.

The real problem is that school choice undercuts public school systems that, by design, strive to provide quality education to all students. School choice creates a businesslike environment where some schools succeed while others fail—and the students fail along with them.

Schools that receive public funding under school choice are ostensibly open to all students through lotteries, but there are obvious ways to game the system. Some students will inevitably only have access to the “bad” schools. For them, a choice doesn’t help much.

You can bet none of Gore’s kin would be among this group.


About Nate Martin

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