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'Same Ideas, Every Disaster': Right-Wing Heritage Foundation Urges Universal School Voucher Program for Coronavirus Recovery

The think tank also recommends immediately revising state requirements for teachers to allow people without teaching certifications to educate students.

An empty playground at the William E. Russell School in Boston on April 21, 2020. The Heritage Foundation unveiled a report this week urging universal school voucher programs to replace public school education, as part of the coronavirus recovery. (Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Progressives and public education advocates on Thursday denounced a proposal from the conservative Heritage Foundation for the United States' recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that includes a recommendation for a universal school voucher program via what one critic called a "particularly brutal" implementation plan.

The group's National Coronavirus Recovery Commission released a report (pdf) this week advising states to "immediately restructure" their education spending to keep taxpayer money from going to public schools. 

"It's a bad policy idea for a variety of reasons, but this implementation would be particularly brutal if what they're seriously proposing is to strip public schools of all funding for the remainder of the year."
—Peter Greene, education blogger

With children in a number of states already out of school for the rest of the term, and with closures expected in some regions to potentially extend through the fall, the Heritage Foundation said that states should offer "education savings accounts (ESAs) to families, enabling them to access their child's share of state per-pupil funding to pay for online courses, online tutors, curriculum, and textbooks so that their children can continue learning."

Education blogger Peter Greene wrote that the plan amounts to "gutting" public education for the foreseeable future and potentially for the long-term, calling ESAs "super vouchers—a voucher that let parents spend public tax dollars with little oversight or accountability."

"It's a bad policy idea for a variety of reasons, but this implementation would be particularly brutal if what they're seriously proposing is to strip public schools of all funding for the remainder of the year," Greene wrote. "Seriously? Just finish the year with zero dollars because we're just going to hand out the rest of your operating budget as vouchers?" 

Public school advocate Diane Ravitch said the plan—a pet cause of conservatives for decades—would "help America sink back at least a century in educating its children, perhaps even two centuries."

As Ravitch noted, the Commission counts among its members Kevin Chavous, "CEO of the notorious for-profit K-12 Inc. online charter chain, noted for high attrition, low graduation rates, and low test scores–and above all, high profits."

"In the nature of for-profit enterprises, there are always new worlds to conquer, new markets to open up," Ravitch wrote. 

Naomi Klein, a vocal critic of "disaster capitalism," in which for-profit entities take advantage of crises to adopt economic policies which benefit the private rather than public sector, suggested the Heritage Foundation's recommendations were predictable. As Klein wrote in her book The Shock Doctrine, tens of millions of federal dollars were used to convert New Orleans into what the New York Times called "the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools" following Hurricane Katrina, with 31 of the privately-run, publicly-funded schools in the city and just four public schools remaining.

"Same ideas, every disaster," tweeted Klein. 

The Commission's report also recommended altering requirements for teachers, saying the "supply of online teachers and tutors" should be free to teach alongside certified educators.

"State restrictions on teacher certification should be lifted immediately," the Foundation wrote, "allowing anyone with a bachelor's degree to provide K–12 instruction online."

The Foundation aims to "McDonaldize" the work of teaching "so that any shmoe can do it and employers can pay shmoe-level wages," Greene wrote.

"If cyber schools are going to cash in, they need access to cheap labor," he added.

The Commission's "reopen America" plan amounts to a push "to dismantle public education," tweeted Jennifer Berkshire, host of the education policy podcast "Have You Heard."

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