It’s “National School Choice Week,” But Independent Women’s Forum and Voice Push School Privatization Year Round
This week, hundreds of events peddling school privatization are taking place across the United States marking the annual “National School Choice Week.” Given Independent Women’s Forum’s record of school privatization efforts, it is unsurprising that the dark money group–funded by known enemies of public schools, like oil billionaire Charles Koch and ex-Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos–is hosting one of them in Virginia.
IWF/V have signed on to coalition letters and supported legislation that takes money away from public schools and gives it to privately run entities that have less oversight than public schools and often have worse outcomes. Some of IWF/V’s staffers have made careers out of promoting the reallocation of funding away from already underfunded public schools in America.
In their actions that exploited the deadly Covid-19 pandemic to push their right-wing agenda to privatize schools, IWF also denied the expertise of virologists, opposed quarantine measures designed to mitigate spread, and even urged home-based child care to limit sanitation standards.
As part of its PR, IWF/V has also worked to rebrand itself as a pro-parent organization. For example, they have joined the right-wing engineered movement to stop public schools from teaching teens and kids the truth about American history. And, they have promoted anti-trans fears in their efforts to discredit the public schools and universities.
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School Privatization Funders
Despite its many extreme claims, IWF/V has received funding from tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook’s parent company, Meta. IWF/V has also received substantial funding from big fortunes underwriting public school privatization, including:
The Charles Koch Institute and Charles G. Koch Foundation
Charles Koch, the billionaire industrial baron, has long had antipathy for public schools. As True North’s Lisa Graves has documented, his very first non-profit enterprise, the Center for Independent Education, was devoted to pushing for purely private schools with no public oversight. For decades, he has funded groups that attack public education.
In 2019, Koch’s network funded two new initiatives that help dismantle K-12 public education. One of them was created in 2019 by Charles Koch and is called Yes. every kid. That group pushes for private school vouchers and charter schools. It was launched in conjunction with a $5 million pledge to a second group called “4.0,” which describes itself as a project that financially supports, “education entrepreneurs in incubating, testing, and launching innovative approaches to education.” The Walton Family Foundation, which is derived from the WalMart fortune and which has also funded IWF/V, committed $5 million to 4.0.
The Bradley Foundation
The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which has been a major funder of IWF, has spent tens of millions of dollars on public school privatization, according to the non-profit progressive group One Wisconsin Now. Bradley, built on the fortune of anti-union industrialists, has long sought to expand the diversion of public school funding for private school vouchers, and it is one of the biggest funders of charter schools proponents. Bradley Foundation money and influence helped establish Milwaukee’s school voucher program in 1991, the first in the nation, and later funded lawsuits to expand using public tax dollars to subsidize religious indoctrination through private school funding.
The DeVos Fortune
The American Federation for Children (AFC) is another dark money group that promotes school privatization. AFC is the 501(c)(4) arm of the DeVos family’s Alliance for School Choice. Betsy DeVos was appointed Secretary of Education by Trump and proceeded to cut funding for public schools while creating the first nationwide federal private school vouchers program. When questioned by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, DeVos refused to say whether the Department of Education would protect private school students from discrimination, despite private schools receiving public funds.
In 2019, IWF/V awarded Betsy DeVos a made-up award they call the “Woman of Valor” for her leading role in pushing an anti-public school agenda. IWF/V gave the same award to former board member Kellyanne Conway after she helped Trump win the White House and defended his lies as “alternative facts.”
IWF’s Activities Targeting Public Schools since Last Year’s “National School Choice Week”
Listed below are just a few examples of how IWF peddles school privatization.
Its “Education Freedom” Center
IWF’s new “Education Freedom Center” (IWF-EFC) launched in 2022 and is used to peddle the majority of IWF’s anti-public school, pro-school privatization content.
IWF-EFC is helmed by Ginny Gentles who was a senior political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. She hosts a vlog she calls “Escaping Your Government Assigned School” and an anti-public school podcast, “Students Over Systems,” for IWF/V. Gentles also led Florida's school privatization programs, formed her own school privatization consulting firm in 2017, and is a “senior advisor” for AFC.
IWF-EFC hosted Betsy DeVos’ inaugural book event. DeVos for decades has pushed for school privatization in order to “advance God’s Kingdom,” and is on record declaring, “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist."
Virginia Education Savings Accounts
Republican Virginia state Delegate Glenn Davis recently introduced HB 1508, school privatization legislation that would allow parents to take a proportion of the state’s public school budget to use for private educational entities through “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs).
The Independent Women’s Network, IWF/V’s social media platform, generated a letter of support for HB 1508 and is asking members to send the form letter to state legislators. However, IWN sidesteps the problems with ESAs.
In addition to taking funding away from public schools, ESAs are troublesome in the following ways:
ESAs have little to no oversight or accountability.
An audit of Arizona’s ESA program found that parents spent $700K of ESA money on beauty supplies and clothing.
And the ESA bill that was fast-tracked in Iowa in 2021 calls for no oversight at all.
Private schools are not required to accept all students, unlike public schools, and have been shown to push out students with challenges, which can help some private schools record high test scores.
ESAs often do not cover the full cost of private school tuition, which means such programs can help families that are better off and who can supplement the difference in tuition costs.
ESAs open up our education system to cronyism and self-dealing. According to Forbes, “An ESA program means an explosion of vendors in a free market scramble for edu-biz dollars, but none of the programs that exist or currently being proposed have any rigorous oversight of those vendors or requirement that such vendors prove they are legit before they are allowed to compete in the marketplace.”
Despite IWF/V rebranding themselves as a “pro-parent” group, they are supporting a school privatization program that leaves parents and taxpayers open to massive fraud and to entities that may not have adequate standards for teachers, facilities, and even good accounting. ESAs suggest that education is a commodity and not a public good that every citizen is entitled to.
IWF’s Anti-Trans Messaging Used to Attack Public Education
IWF/V have also sought to control and manipulate public schools to fit their far-right agenda.
IWF staffer Kelsey Bolar’s produced an anti-trans video series, dubbed “Identity Crisis,” which IWF is using to vilify public education by claiming that public schools are pressuring kids to transition and then hiding it from parents. Inclusive policies in schools can help a student affirm their identity even if they feel unsafe disclosing their identities publicly or to their families.
Evidence shows that the anti-trans school policies IWF is pushing will likely harm trans students, 75% of whom already feel unsafe at school. Trans students are also already more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety and are less likely to continue their education than their cisgender peers.
IWV/F staffers also spoke in front of Representative Debbie Lesko’s (R-AZ) “Protect Children Caucus,” where one IWV staffer accused the public education system of “grooming” children– a slur that wrongfully equates LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles. Not only has this deceptive and dangerous accusation exploded in use, further hurting the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community, but it also harms survivors of child sexual abuse while potentially helping actual sexual predators. (Lesko has a history of advancing an extreme agenda in Congress and in Arizona, where she co-chaired the Koch-funded ALEC in Arizona and promoted numerous regressive policies, like allowing corporations to limit American women’s access to contraceptives. Lesko has also been lauded by IWF for supporting its anti-trans doctrine dubbed the “Women’s Bill of Rights.”)
These are just some of the ways that IWF/V have peddled attacks on public schools and its push for school privatization.