NEWS: New Report on the Coordinated Effort by Billionaires to Dismantle the American Public School System

WASHINGTON, June 25 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) today released a new report detailing the coordinated and growing effort to undermine, dismantle, and privatize the American public education system. This report comes after Sanders led the committee in a hearing last week titled, “The Immediate and Long-Term Challenges Facing Public School Teachers: Low, Pay, Teacher Shortages, and Underfunded Public Schools.”

Written by the HELP Committee’s Majority Staff, the report focuses on the impact of school privatization policies in the form of private school vouchers, which harm public schools, fuel education segregation, largely benefit wealthy families, and provide tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations.

According to the report’s new analysis, over the past decade, state funding for the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools has barely increased, by an average of just 1 percent a year after adjusting for inflation. During this same time, state spending on tax breaks and subsidies for private schools has skyrocketed by 408 percent, or $7 billion. These costs do not include 9 states that recently enacted, but have not fully implemented, their universal private school voucher policies – which will likely cause costs to further spike in coming years.

“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,” said Chairman Sanders. “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. On this 70th anniversary year of Brown v. Board of Education, let us recommit to creating an education system that works for all of our people, not just the wealthy few.”

The American public K-12 school system serves about 91 percent of students across the country and employs 3.5 million teachers. Funded through taxpayer dollars, the system relies on 44 percent local funding, 46 percent state funding, and only 10 percent in federal funding. However, in the last three years, an unprecedented number of states with Republican-led legislatures have expanded their private school voucher programs, draining hundreds of millions of dollars from state budgets and public education systems to fund private schools.

One example the report examines is Arizona. In 2022, Arizona passed the nation’s first universal-eligibility private school voucher program. Originally forecasted to cost $65 million in Fiscal Year 2024, the state later warned that the program could cost $944 million annually, subsidizing many students who never attended public schools to begin with. This could result in a $320 million gap in the overall state budget. While 92 percent of Arizona’s students are enrolled in public school, less than half of new K-12 education spending in the state’s FY24 budget would go towards public education. With the money it spends on private school vouchers, Arizona could hire 15,730 more public school teachers and pay them at least $60,000 a year.

Some additional findings from the report include:

  • Families who can already afford to pay for private education benefit the most from private school vouchers. For example, early data from states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin show that the majority of students – 65 percent to 95 percent – who participate in private school voucher programs never attended a public school in the first place.
  • A handful of conservative billionaires are playing a major role in funding the school privatization movement led by conservative advocacy groups, think tanks, media outlets, and Republican legislatures. The Bradley Foundation, DeVos Family Foundation, and Koch Foundation are some of the biggest right-wing funders driving the research, state legislation, lobbying campaigns, and legal battles to attack the public education system from all fronts.
  • Standing up private school voucher programs is decimating the state budgets of early adopters. The report estimates that one year into their new voucher program, the actual cost of Arizona’s program is 983 percent higher than initially projected, and Florida’s universal private school voucher program is already 380 percent higher than what lawmakers estimated.
  • In just one year alone, the amount that states are spending on private school vouchers could instead:
    • Hire 15,730 more public K-12 teachers in Arizona;
    • Hire 51,667 more school counselors in Florida;
    • Raise wages for each child care providers by $33,500 in New Hampshire, and;
    • More than triple its investment in career and technical education in Ohio.

As Chairman of the HELP Committee, Sanders has introduced legislation that would address the teacher shortage across the U.S. and substantially increase funding for public schools in high-poverty districts. The Pay Teachers Act ensures all public school teachers earn at least $60,000 a year with increases over the course of their career, and would triple funding for Title I – the major federal program that provides resources to low-income school districts. Sanders has also introduced legislation to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and debt free and to cancel all student debt. 

Read the full report, here.