Bernie Sanders Says Billionaires Are Trying to ‘Dismantle’ Public Schools

By Suzanne Blake; Newsweek

Senator Bernie Sanders called out billionaires in what he said is a “coordinated effort” to dismantle the American public school system.

In a new report released this week, Sanders alleged that the ultra-rich are increasingly working to undermine and privatize public schools. Sanders last week led a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing week titled The Immediate and Long-Term Challenges Facing Public School Teachers: Low, Pay, Teacher Shortages, and Underfunded Public Schools.

“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, an independent from Vermont, said in a statement. “That is absolutely unacceptable. We can no longer tolerate billionaires and multi-national corporations receiving massive tax breaks and subsidies while children in America are forced to go to under-staffed, under-resourced, and under-funded public schools.”

The wealthy are coordinating the attack in several ways, the report alleged, from implementing private school vouchers to advocating for education segregation. These policies tend to benefit wealthy families and can often provide tax breaks for the rich and large corporations in the process, the report said.

The report also found that state funding for public elementary and secondary schools has only barely increased over the last decade, by just 1 percent per year, after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, state spending for tax breaks and private school subsidies surged by 408 percent, a whopping $7 billion.

Today, 91 percent of U.S. students attend public schools that rely on a mix of local, state and federal funding.

Republican-led states have increasingly pushed private school voucher programs to promote parent and school choice, but it can end up taking money from funding that otherwise would help public schools.

“Under the false promise of ‘school choice,’ Republican-led state legislatures are adopting or expanding K-12 private school vouchers that drain hundreds of millions of dollars from their state budgets and public education systems to fund unaccountable private schools,” Sanders said in his report.

Arizona, for instance, passed the first universal eligibility private school voucher program two years ago. It costs somewhere between $65 million and $944 million annually, according to estimates, and means that less than half of new K-12 education spending will go to the public school system.

According to the report, Arizona could use the money hire 15,730 more public school teachers, paying them at least $60,000 a year.

Another issue at play is who benefits from private school vouchers. Early data shows that in states that have implemented these programs, 65 percent to 95 percent of those who participate in the voucher programs never attended public schools. That means families who can already afford to pay for private education likely benefit the most, the report said.

Kevin Thompson, a finance expert and founder/CEO of Texas-based 9i Capital Group, said many of Sanders’ concerns are rooted in reality, especially as it concerns the use of taxpayer dollars to fund private schools.

“He has some valid points to this because taxpayers should not be funding private education for individuals and dollars are traditionally used for public school funding,” Thompson told Newsweek. “The vouchers would benefit families already sending their children to private schools as the data has shown.”

But just who is leading the push for these types of programs? In the Sanders report, it’s a “handful of conservative billionaires,” with the Bradley Foundation, DeVos Family Foundation and Koch Foundation some of the key players behind the lobbying campaigns and state laws, he said.

“Make no mistake, Republicans’ efforts to villify educators, ban books and censor what is taught in the classroom are blatant attempts to erode trust in the nation’s public schools and justify diverting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away from public education,” Sanders said.

Thompson said the wealthy tend to have the most influence on political decisions, so lawmakers often move in favor of the rich.

“The wealthy have a significant influence on this due to the fact they can afford to push legislation towards what benefits them the most,” Thompson said. “They traditionally fund campaigns and actively engage their state representatives to move legislation towards their own personal interest.”

Previously, Sanders introduced bills that would help public schools navigate the many problems they face. His proposed Pay Teachers Act called to guarantee that teachers are paid at least $60,000 yearly to start and to triple the funding for Title I, which helps low-income school districts.

He also introduced legislation to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and to cancel all remaining student debt.

Alex Beene, a financial literacy instructor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, said Sanders’s statements reflect a growing concern among everyday Americans about the state of education.

“I think for many Americans, this isn’t about a disdain for private schools, but rather a very real fear their students won’t have access to the same classes and consequently the same professional futures as their private school counterparts,” Beene told Newsweek.