Tag Archives: Minnesota legislature

Parents of Special Education Students Protest Minnesota’s Neo-Voucher Proposal

March 27, 2017

Minneapolis-based attorney Sarah McLaren should be forgiven for dissolving into tears while testifying at a Minnesota Education Policy Committee hearing in early February, since she had not planned on speaking out that day. Instead, she was on her way to work on February 9 when she heard a brief news report on public radio, detailing a new tax credit scholarship, or neo-voucher,” education bill that was moving through the state legislature.

“Right away,” she recalled over coffee recently, “I turned my car around, drove to the Senate Office Building and testified that day.” In a video recording of McLaren’s testimony, she can be seen dressed in a black and white speckled suit jacket, clutching a framed picture of her six-year old daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, McLaren’s only child, has autism spectrum disorder; because of that, McLaren says, “it will always be more expensive to educate my daughter.” 

This realization is what compelled McLaren to make a detour to the Senate Office Building on February 9. Once there, McLaren says she “surprised everyone in the room” by delivering an unscripted, at times tearful rebuke of Republican representative Ron Kresha’s tax credit scholarship bill. Kresha’s bill, whose roots can be traced to similar, “cookie cutter” ALEC bills being proposed around the country, seeks to give wealthy individuals and corporations in Minnesota a tax break–up to $35 million, statewide–for donations to private school scholarship funds. These funds are then supposed to help lower (and middle) income students afford tuition payments. 

Proponents of this approach bristle at any obvious comparison to school voucher plans, which drain money directly out of a state’s general education fund–after tax funds have been collected. Vouchers have proven to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, leading school choice advocates to instead propose Kresha-like tax breaks that divert money from the general education fund before it is collected. Such schemes can then be considered voluntary “tax incentive plans,” rather than outright, distasteful voucher programs.

Either way, the public school funding pool would take a hit, while religious and private schools stand to benefit. While observing a January rally for the tax credit bill, I spoke with a rural Minnesotan who helps run a small Lutheran school. One reason he is so in favor of Kresha’s bill is competition from charter schools. Because charters are free, he explained to me, they are siphoning students from the Lutheran school’s already limited enrollment base. This taps into one reason religious schools tend to favor these tax credit scholarship schemes: survival.

Catholic schools in particular have been out front about how such diversions of public tax dollars could benefit their schools:

Enrollment in US Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students, and in the last 20 years, more than 1,500 Catholic schools have shuttered. Supporters say that without an infusion of funds – either in the form of vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs – the very future of Catholic education in this country is at risk.

“Catholic schools look to tax credits to save them,”  The Crux, 2015

But McLaren wasn’t drawn to the neo voucher issue because she is opposed to religious or private schools. Instead, she insists that expanding school choice schemes will leave children like hers behind. As an infant and toddler, McLaren’s daughter attended a private center near her home–a “well-regarded program,” McLaren recalls, that billed itself as being “experts in early childhood care and education.” Along the way, Eleanor’s as yet undiagnosed autism began to surface, through biting incidents and other behavior issues.

Around age three, Eleanor’s autism was identified, and it soon became clear that the private program was neither equipped, nor particularly interested, in adapting to her needs. McLaren remembers being called to an “urgent” meeting about Eleanor’s behavior, where she was told that the school “had to think of the other children.” Eleanor was biting other students and parents were not happy about it.

“It was distressing,” McLaren notes. “The focus was immediately on Eleanor as the problem, and nothing about the environment” at the school. The school did not seem invested in supporting Eleanor, and staff were perhaps puzzled by the girl’s behavior. “She seems to repeat our questions a lot,” they told McLaren–with little apparent awareness of how to work with a child with autism. The expectation seemed to be that it was up to Eleanor’s parents to “fix” her behavior. (McLaren believes these messages stigmatize special education, and may make families reluctant to speak out.)

McLaren then describes an up and down journey, of first getting Eleanor placed with a preschool teacher who had some autism experience. When that teacher left the school, it became clear that Eleanor was struggling. “She was overwhelmed,” McLaren says, and responded by “removing herself from the group and spending the whole day alone.” Soon, McLaren and her husband moved Eleanor to Fraser, a Richfield preschool and childcare center that provides services and support–including access to “typical” peers–for special needs children. (Chicago teacher and activist, Xian Franzinger Barrett, has written about how low-income students of color–without access to extra resources–stand to lose the most when public schools are underfunded.)

From there, Eleanor graduated to kindergarten and has been attending a public school in her suburban neighborhood. McLaren quickly asserts that, at both Fraser and Eleanor’s public school, the message has always been, “How can we support her?” In response, Eleanor is thriving. She is at or near grade level, thanks to what McLaren says is “generous support for mainstreaming.” 

That support, though, is expensive. Eleanor’s school provides her with extra personnel, skilled at working with special education students, and Eleanor has access to a variety of strategies that make her school day possible. McLaren says these strategies include “access to sensory tools (headphones, chewy, weighted vest), and breaks as needed. For example, at group time, Eleanor can sit in a child-sized rocking chair instead of on the floor with peers since that is difficult for her.” Eleanor is also allowed regular breaks from the classroom, including “trampoline jumps” in the school’s special education resource room.

Rather than an indulgence, McLaren calls these breaks “essential.” And seeing how Eleanor has benefitted from an inclusive, supportive environment has turned McLaren into a fighter. In January, McLaren watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s cringeworthy confirmation hearing, and was appalled by DeVos’s “stunning lack of knowledge about educating kids with different needs.” (DeVos infamously displayed little awareness of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects the needs of special education students.)

McLaren then knew she had to “get more public” with her concerns because private schools do not Image result for individualized education planhave to educate students like Eleanor. “Choice sounds good,” McLaren acknowledges, “but I don’t think people realize that private schools do the choosing.” She maintains that religious schools, for example, do not have to follow Minnesota’s Human Rights law, while private schools do not have to adhere to federal special education mandates. The fallout, McLaren fears, will be more segregation in education, with “high needs kids left behind” and public schools left with even fewer resources.

McLaren returned to the Capitol one week after her first, spontaneous shot at testifying against Kresha’s bill, and came armed with–again–Eleanor’s framed picture, as well as some support of her own. Flanking McLaren on February 16, when she spoke before the House Tax Committee, was a cohort of fellow parents of students with special needs, as well as representatives from special education advocacy groups like PACER.

If you’ve got a few minutes, and a handkerchief nearby, watch these parents and special education advocates stumble through their testimony, doing their best to be civil and resilient while pointing out what seems painfully obvious:

The children that need the resources most desperately in special education are those that will pay the price if you divert money away from public school resources. That’s why we speak against this.

–Don McNeil, PACER Center representative and parent of special needs students

Minnesota’s tax credit scholarship bill is currently in limbo. It sailed through various policy and finance committees, thanks to party-line votes, and may be included in an end of session omnibus bill. Governor Mark Dayton, however, has remained opposed to such “voucher-light” proposals.

*Some perspective from Texas, where similar bills have been proposed:

Proponents claim donations will help families pay their private school tuition and that will relieve the enrollment burden on public schools or provide access to good schools for disadvantaged students. That’s the sales pitch. In reality, the result is to hand tax dollars over to private schools, increasing the financial strain on public schools and possibly increasing local property taxes in the process to make up for lost funding.

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Right-Wing Neo-School Voucher Bill Hits Minnesota

January 29, 2017

Among the polished marble and gold-tinged walls of the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda, a stand-off of sorts took place on January 24. On the outskirts of the rotunda, a circle of protesters–parents, teachers, union reps and activists–stood silently, clutching hand-written, pro-public school and anti-voucher signs. 

Before them, a crowd of school choice advocates began filling the inner circle of the rotunda, all wearing festive, buttercup-yellow scarves around their necks. The scarves came from a local group called OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids,” but they were also a reminder that, hey–it’s National School Choice Week!

To show solidarity with other school choice devotees, the gold scarves were donned nationwide at charter school and state capitol rallies. Even Betsy DeVos was found sporting one at a Washington, D.C., charter school event. (I’m glad she’s found something to do while waiting to be–most likely–voted in as Trump’s education secretary on January 31.) 

In St. Paul, the OAK folks were also on hand to support the latest attempt to keep Minnesota taxpayer dollars in private hands, when it comes to education funding. Through a bill introduced by Republican Ron Kresha of northern Minnesota, lawmakers will be asked to provide a tax credit for individuals and corporations who make “equity and diversity donations” to private and religious school foundations.  

Such donations are then supposed to be used as scholarships for kids withering away at miserable and/or secular public schools, but don’t call them vouchers (at least not yet). A school voucher, strictly speaking, draws money directly out of public education coffers, and directs it to private schools, including religious schools, in the form of reimbursement. A tax credit, or “neo-voucher,” on the other hand, allows taxpayers (corporate or individual) to avoid paying into the public education coffers in the first place.

These “neo-vouchers” have been spreading across the country more quickly than traditional vouchers. The tax credit model provides a way to funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools with even less public accountability than with regular vouchers, and to bypass state constitutional provisions that have stood in the way of some state’s traditional voucher programs.

–Brendan Fischer, Center on Media and Democracy

Neo-vouchers are the latest school privatization scheme cooked up by the determined forces at ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the place where “global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called ‘model bills’ reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.”  (Read Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, for more info, or scroll through these short videos on ALEC’s agenda.)

ALEC has been pushing school voucher bills since the early 1980’s, under the tutelage of pro-privatization ALEC guru, Milton Friedman. Back then, ALEC tried the honest approach, by openly stating that its original voucher bill was intended to smash teachers’ unions and “introduce normal market forces” into public education.

But they have learned that vouchers are unpopular and, in many states, simply not allowed–thanks to the burdensome separation of church and state. Now, according to the Center on Media and Democracy, “ALEC and other school privatizers today frame ‘vouchers’—taxpayer-funded tuition for private, and often religious, schools—in terms of ‘opportunity’ for low-income students and giving parents the ‘choice’ to send their children to public or private schools.”

A recent Truthout article calls this narrative a “useful fiction” built around the idea that vouchers are “social mobility tickets”–and not a scheme to further segregate, de-fund and destroy public education. And it is working:

The American Federation for Children (AFC), chaired by Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, estimates that vouchers and voucher-like tax-credit schemes currently divert $1.5 billion of public money to private schools annually. But that is not enough. By expanding “pro-school choice legislative majorities” in state houses across the country the organization hopes that $5 billion a year will be siphoned out of public schools by 2020 and applied to for-profit and religious schools.

Minnesota’s Voucher, er, Tax Credit Bill

This kind of “voucher by another name” is what we have with the bill now moving through the Minnesota legislature. ALEC has named its model bill the “Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act (Scholarship Tax Credits),” and Minnesota legislators have brought it, once again, to the Senate and House for consideration. In the mold of ALEC, they are calling it the “Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” The basic premise of it is that individuals and corporations can direct their tax dollars to private school foundations, rather than pay into the state’s general education fund.

These donations, as noted above, would be used to provide tuition scholarships for individual students. And, the qualifying income level for these scholarships is quite high: a family of five making $105,000 per year, or twice the limit allowed by federal reduced lunch guidelines, would be eligible. (This points back to the idea that vouchers are more about breaking the public school system than helping low-income kids attend spendy private schools.) The state’s general education fund stands to lose up to $35 million if this neo-voucher bill passes.

In 2015 Republicans tried to push a similar bill through, with help from Democrat Terri Bonoff, a determined Teach for America and education reform supporter who ran for Congress in 2016 and lost. (The Minnesota push for vouchers goes back, at least, to the 1990’s.) The bill didn’t make it, but it’s back–and this year, Republicans control both the House and Senate in Minnesota. 

An important note:

But…School Choice!

Back to the gold-scarved, school choice rally sponsored by OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids.” OAK is a relatively new organization run by long-time Republican operative, Chas Anderson, who was closely aligned with former Governor Tim Pawlenty and once held a top spot in Minnesota’s Department of Education.

I can’t tell where OAK gets its funding from, as they do not appear to be a registered nonprofit. In 2015, Anderson joined forces with two other “high-ranking alums of the Minnesota GOP”–Kurt Zellers and Brian McClung–to start a PR firm, MZA+Co. The return email address for OAK is Anderson’s MZA+Co email address: chas@mzacompany.com, so it is unclear whether OAK is a separate group or a project of her PR firm. 

In April, 2016, former Pawlenty spokesman McClung appeared on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program to weigh in on Republican plans to fix the “achievement gap.” Ripping a page from ALEC’s playbook, McClung emphatically gave Almanac host Cathy Wurzer an earful: “For too long,” he insists, “Democrats and the teachers’ union have stopped kids from having real choices…and so we need to find ways to empower parents.”

He doesn’t mention that, as the state’s population has grown steadily less white and less wealthy, public funding for education has dropped. This is, of course, a Friedman-esque way to create a crisis for our public schools, thereby “proving” they are failing–and insisting that neo-voucher, school choice schemes are the only way to fix them. 

Choice Before Quality

At the OAK rally on January 24, as silent protesters stood witness, a small and equally quiet group stood before a podium. There, Arizona charter school advocate and sought after education reform expert Lisa Graham Keegan took the stage wearing a crisp red suit and waxing on about how she and her husband are “blessed to have a home in northern Minnesota.” 

Image result for lisa graham keegan

Lisa Graham Keegan, at a previous school choice rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Graham Keegan glowingly stated that she is “passionate, passionate” about school choice, but confessed to being “agnostic” when it comes to where kids go to school. “We love having choices,” she told the group in front of her,” because our five children are very different.” Graham Keegan helped write charter school legislation in Arizona, where, she has admitted, quality control lagged far behind the desire to make school choice a reality. (Arizona already has a state law that gives individual and corporations tax credit for directing their monies to private school foundations.)

Local school choice supporter Reynolds-Anthony Harris followed Graham Keegan onstage, saying that “our job is to harvest the best out of our children.” Harris is a small business owner whose company, Lyceum Partners+Design, was listed as a supporter of a series of school board candidate events in Minneapolis in the fall of 2016.  At one of these events, Harris moderated a particularly contentious candidate forum on behalf of  “Animate the Race,” a side project of Minnesota Comeback (another “sector agnostic” group with wealthy funders). 

After Graham Keegan and Harris were finished, OAK supporters headed off to a luncheon, to be followed by attendance at the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act hearing in the House Education Finance Committee. 

The line of resistance, so far, to this ALEC-crafted tax credit bill has been drawn by Education Minnesota, NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), and the faith-based group, ISAIAH. Before the school choice rally, these groups held their own media event in the basement of the state capitol. Hoisting signs that called vouchers a “false promise,” supporters called for more resources for existing public schools–more nurses, more mental health support, and more investment in training and retaining teachers of color.

Tax credits are just another name for vouchers, they insisted, before calling out the “two-tiered systems”–one for wealthier, white students, and one for marginalized students of color–that vouchers and other school choice schemes have created in cities such as MIlwaukee, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and, of course, DeVos’s Detroit.

Paul Slack, president of ISAIAH and head pastor at north Minneapolis’s New Creations Church, ended the anti-voucher rally by saying that “public education is still our best opportunity–not perfect–but the best opportunity for all of us.”

“Collectively,” Slack said, “we have one question for our legislators. Are you listening?”

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