| Corey A DeAngelis speaking with attendees at Revolution 2022 hosted by Young Americans for Liberty in Kissimmee Florida | MR Online Corey A. DeAngelis speaking with attendees at Revolution 2022 hosted by Young Americans for Liberty in Kissimmee, Florida.

Debunking the school choice movement’s top evangelist

Originally published: The Progressive Magazine on July 1, 2024 by Peter Greene (more by The Progressive Magazine)  | (Posted Jul 03, 2024)

Corey DeAngelis is an influential, if not the most influential, voice in the rightwing campaign to demonize public schools and privatize public education. The guy’s résumé hits all the bases in the libertarian gameplan. After earning a doctorate at the University of Arkansas’s education reform program (funded by the pro-school choice Walton family), DeAngelis helped found the Education Freedom Institute, became a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, worked as an adjunct scholar at the CATO Institute, took up an appointment as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and was hired on as a senior fellow at Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children.

He still holds all of those jobs, but his more common title is “school choice evangelist.” As the recent school voucher wave has surged in state after state, DeAngelis has been there to spread the word. While on tour in support of his new book, he distills the current pro-voucher argument.

In a recent talk at the Heritage Foundation, DeAngelis touched on most of the main arguments for vouchers (many of them false) and revealed a few truths about the pro-voucher strategy.

1. The Evil Unions and COVID

The villainy of the teachers union is a thread that runs through much of DeAngelis’s argument, especially related to the COVID-19 pandemic narrative. DeAngelis blames the unions (and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten) for “fear mongering” and accuses them of extorting ransom payments by holding schools hostage. The unions, he charged, used the pandemic to empower themselves and the “government schools” that he calls “a jobs program for adults.”

There’s no recognition that teachers had a legitimate fear during the pandemic or that hundreds of educators died of COVID-19. Nor did he mention the many private and non-union charter schools that also closed their doors. Every problematic decision that he cited from pandemic times is blamed on the union, with no mention that Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education provided little or no guidance to districts facing difficult decisions in an evolving situation.

DeAngelis’s narrative argues that parents viewing Zoom school were appalled and awakened by what they saw. That oft-repeated tale stands in contrast to polls that show the vast majority of parents were satisfied with how their schools handled COVID-19. A 2022 Gallup poll found that, while the general public’s opinion of public schools is “souring,” parents’ favorable opinion of their own school matched pre-pandemic levels. The common sense conclusion to draw from this data is that people who don’t have first-hand experience with public schools are developing a low opinion of them based on some other source of information.

DeAngelis’s argument has other flaws. He claimed that the unions extracted a huge ransom from schools. But he also argued that pandemic relief funds given to schools never reached teachers and were, instead, soaked up by administrative bloat, which would seem to be a big tactical blunder on the unions’ part.

2. The Evil Unions and the Democratic Party

DeAngelis made the unusual claim that Democrats aren’t having kids, but Republicans are. But that, he said, won’t save conservatives because schools are fully “infiltrated by radical leftist union teachers.” The left uses schools as a way to control other people’s children. The Democratic Party, he added, is a fully owned subsidiary of the teachers’ union.

DeAngelis also repeated a false narrative of the National School Board Association’s supposed campaign to muzzle parents. In fall 2021, local school boards found their usually sleepy meetings had turned into wild, threatening, and even violent chaos. The NSBA turned to the Biden Administration for help, calling some of the actions “the equivalent of a form of domestic terrorism or hate crimes.” This was quickly and inaccurately cast as the Democratic administration calling parents domestic terrorists.

The resulting controversy caused the NSBA to lose some members, which DeAngelis seemed happy about. “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” he said.

This narrative that smears public school-friendly groups fits a general pattern of conservative attacks on groups seen as Democratic Party supporters.

3. Hyper Partisan Strategy

In 2022, Christopher Rufo, another operative from the vast rightwing think tank network, told an audience at Hillsdale College that “to get universal [school] choice, you really need to operate from a place of universal public school distrust.” DeAngelis works with that idea: Create as much alarm around public schools as possible, and frame parent power in the form of vouchers as a solution rather than an abandonment of the country’s promise of a decent public education for every child.

Part of the idea is to get parents declaring, “The building’s on fire. Never mind the building or the other kids—help me rescue my child.” But as the polling data show, parents are mostly unpanicked. So the other part of the strategy is to panic everyone else so they can believe that more voucher policies will save children from the radical union indoctrinators trying to steal our children.

Follow DeAngelis enough and you may think, “This guy’s kind of extreme.” That’s by design. His old University of Arkansas mentor Jay Greene (now at the Heritage Foundation) argued two years ago that voucher fans should stop trying to make leftwing arguments for school choice (they weren’t helping) and instead lean into the culture wars.

DeAngelis calls it hyperpartisanship. Don’t try to use facts on red state politicians—use shame. He quotes Milton Friedman, who argued that you don’t get your favored results just by electing the right people, but by creating an atmosphere in which the wrong people find it politically advantageous to do the “right” thing. DeAngelis argues that you get bipartisanship through hyperpartisanship. Be so extreme that your opponents have to work with you.

4. Vouchers Mostly Help The Wealthy? So What?

Research increasingly shows that school vouchers mostly benefit the wealthy who already have children in private schools (which are, in turn, raising tuition). To that charge, DeAngelis offered a simple response: “So what?”

Part of his response is, “No family should be forced to pay twice.” But by that reasoning, people without any children should not pay anything into the system at all.

DeAngelis’s lack of concern over wealthy people getting voucher money is also practical, noting that Illinois lost its voucher program because it served primarily low-income persons, persons who don’t have much political juice. If the left were smart, he argues, they wouldn’t keep pointing out that wealthy people are using vouchers, because those wealthy people are politically advantaged.

In other words, universal vouchers for the wealthy is a feature, not a bug, because it gives voucher supporters like DeAngelis a group of well-connected backers.

5. Parent Power?

DeAngelis argues that all families should be able to take their dollars to the school that best suits their needs. There are two problems with that.

First, the school of their choice may not choose them. Universal voucher programs allow private schools to discriminate in a wide variety of ways, from LGBTQ+ persons to children who do not have born again family members.

Second, when a family gets a voucher, they don’t just get their own dollars; they get the tax dollars of their neighbors. Imagine a country in which parents had to go knock on doors to ask for the money needed to fully fund their school voucher. Voucher fans don’t imagine that world. Folks like DeAngelis, who disdain “government schools,” want the government to do the door-knocking for them.

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