Florida ranked No. 1 for "education freedom" — by right-wing group that wants to privatize it all

Heritage Foundation report praises Florida, Arizona for big steps toward deregulating and privatizing schools

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published September 10, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A new education report released Friday by the Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, ranks Florida as the best state in the country for "education freedom," with Arizona a close second, and Washington, D.C., New York and most of the Northeast falling to the bottom. 

That claim, along with the fact that the list's top 20 states are mostly deep "red" and its bottom 10 are almost all dark "blue," might come as a surprise to education watchers who are familiar with more traditional assessments of education performance. But in the Heritage Foundation's inaugural "Education Freedom Report Card," the think tank is grading according to a different metric entirely: not things like average student funding, teacher salary or classroom size, but how easily state legislatures enable students to leave public schools; how lightly private schools and homeschooling are regulated; how active and welcome conservative parent-advocacy groups are; and how frequently or loudly those groups claim that schools are indoctrinating students.

Florida's Department of Education was quick to celebrate its No. 1 Heritage ranking, but digging into the four main categories the report assessed — "school choice," "regulatory freedom," "transparency" and "return on investment" — illuminates both what that ranking means and, perhaps more important, what conservatives' long-term goals for public education are. 

In the category of education choice, Heritage's primary focus is on education savings accounts (ESAs), a form of school voucher that allows parents to opt out of public schools and use a set amount of state funding (sometimes delivered via debit card) on almost any educational expenses they see fit. ESAs can be used towards charter schools, private schools, parochial schools and low-cost (and typically low-quality) "voucher schools," as well as online schools, homeschooling expenses, unregulated "microschools" (where a group of parents pool resources to hire a private teacher) or tutoring. The report's methodology also notes that the percentage of children in a state who attend these alternatives to public schools figures into its rankings, implying that families who choose traditional public schools are not considered examples of educational "freedom." The "choice" category also awards points based on how non-public schools are regulated, docking states that require accreditation or the same level of testing mandated for public schools.

In terms of "regulatory freedom," Heritage weighs whether states enforce "overburdensome regulations … in the name of 'accountability.'" The chief concern here appears to be teacher certification credentials, since states that encourage "alternative" credentialing or that employ more teachers without teaching degrees are ranked higher than those where more educators have traditional qualifications. This section also penalizes states where a high percentage of school districts employ chief diversity officers, since, the report claims, such positions primarily exist to "provide political support and organization to one side of the debate over the contentious issues of race and opportunity." 

In the third category, "transparency," the report rewards states that have "strong anti-critical race theory" laws, high rates of engagement by groups like Parents Defending Education — which has ties to the Koch network — and laws requiring school districts to provide exhaustive public access to any student curricula or educational materials. States where Parents Defending Education have reported more "indoctrination incidents" — which usually means conflicts regarding teaching about racism or LGBTQ issues — are ranked lower. 

Lastly, in terms of spending, the report compares per-pupil spending not just to learning outcomes but also to matters like the future tax burden created by teacher pensions, which Heritage sees as a reflection of concentrated "teacher union power" and "deficient political leaders."

Heritage proposes teaching an "aspirational and inspirational take on America's history" which debunks the "misguided argument" that "injustices" of the past lead to the "present-day problems" of Black people.

The report also included a section containing model legislation written by the Goldwater Institute, the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice and the Heritage Foundation itself, covering more "anti-CRT" proposals, more requirements for schools to publicize their training materials for students and staff and more or bigger ESA voucher programs. In its own model bill, "Protecting K-12 Students from Discrimination," Heritage proposes that schools teach an "aspirational and inspirational take on America's history, debunking the misguided argument that present-day problems of black Americans are caused by the injustices of past failures" and holding that no teachers or students can be compelled "to discuss public policy issues of the day without his or her consent." 

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What's especially noteworthy about this report — which Heritage says it will release on an annual basis — is how closely most of its ranking criteria track with the right's broader education agenda. Over the last few months, almost all  the issues addressed in this report have been highlighted as key action items for conservative education reformers, from the promotion of ESAs, as a preferred pathway to universal school vouchers, to alternative teacher credentialing to the expansion of the anti-CRT movement, which now encompasses anything related to "diversity, equity and inclusion." 

In late June, Arizona passed a sweeping expansion of its own ESA policies, instantly creating the most wide-reaching school privatization plan in the country and sparking immediate calls for other Republican-led states to follow suit. (Although Florida ranked first overall in Heritage's report, the authors note with evident enthusiasm that Arizona's new ESA law will "certainly give Florida a run for its money next year.") 

Likewise, the report's emphasis on alternative teacher credentialing underscores a major new focus of conservative activism. In February, the right-wing bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, declared "alternative credentialing" to be one of 2022's "essential policy ideas." Two months later, anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo called on state lawmakers to rescind requirements that teachers hold education degrees, saying that university education programs serve only to indoctrinate teachers in left-wing ideology. In early July, Arizona passed a law decreeing that public school teachers don't even need college degrees in order to begin teaching. And in August, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did the same, arguing that teacher certification requirements were "too rigid" and announcing that military veterans who were halfway to a college degree could now be hired to teach in public schools. 

Individually and together, these education "reform" proposals tie back to larger calls to privatize education — which is sometimes acknowledged out loud, as when Rufo declared this April that increased controversy around public schools would help create the environment for "universal school choice." The Heritage report is part of a similar long game, declaring in its opening paragraphs that "America has never been closer than it is today to realizing Milton Friedman's vision for universal education choice." 

Framing the report by invoking the libertarian economist Friedman — who, over the course of his controversial career, proposed eliminating Social Security, the Food and Drug Administration, the licensing of doctors and more — is a telling choice. In a foundational 1955 essay, as Heritage notes, Friedman famously argued that "government-administered schooling" was incompatible with a freedom-loving society, and that public funding of education should be severed from public administration of it — which would end public education as the country had known it for generations.

Milton Friedman claimed that school vouchers would solve all the "critical problems" faced by schools. In fact, says Carol Corbett Burris, they haven't "delivered on any of his promises ... [and] all evidence shows they have made segregation worse."

As Duke University historian Nancy MacLean writes, Friedman's call for "education freedom" came at the same moment that Virginia segregationists were pioneering the use of school vouchers to enable their "regionwide strategy of 'massive resistance'" to integration. Critics have long pointed out that, in that same 1955 essay, Friedman acknowledged that school vouchers might be used to uphold segregation, creating a system of "exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools" that parents could choose between. Friedman's defenders, including at EdChoice, the school privatization advocacy organization he founded in the late 1990s, counter that this quote must be considered within the larger context of Friedman's professed belief that free-market educational competition would eventually mean that "the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the non mixed, and a gradual transition will take place." (Assuming that integration advocates managed to successfully "persuade others of their views.")

"Friedman may have been an accomplished number-cruncher, but when it came to social issues, he was a crackpot," said Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. He claimed that "vouchers 'would solve all of the critical problems' faced by schools," from discipline, to busing to segregation, Burris continued. "He presented no evidence, just claims based on his disdain for any government regulation."

This theory has been tested, Burris said, and proven false. "The jury is in. School choice in the form of charters and vouchers has not delivered on any of his promises; in fact, all evidence shows they have made segregation worse." 

By 1980, Friedman was declaring that vouchers were merely a useful waypoint on the road to true education freedom, which would include revoking compulsory education laws. In 2006, shortly before his death, Friedman told an ALEC audience that it would be "ideal" to "abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it." 

For Heritage to use Friedman as its ideological lodestar, public education advocates observe, makes clear what the report values most in the state education systems it's ranking.

"The fact that the Heritage Foundation ranks Arizona second in the country, when our schools are funded nearly last in the nation, only underscores the depraved lens with which they view the world," said Beth Lewis, director of the advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, which is currently leading a citizen ballot referendum against the state's new universal ESA law. "Heritage boasting about realizing Milton Friedman's dream reveals the agenda — to abolish public schools and put every child on a voucher in segregated schools."

"This is a report that celebrates states not funding their students," agreed Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest union. Noting that Florida in fact ranks 45th in the nation in average per-student funding, Spar continued, "In their report, it seems like the states that fund their students at a higher level have a worse ranking than those who invest less in their children."

This amounts, Spar continued, to "the Heritage Foundation celebrating the rankings of how well you underfund public schools, how well you dismantle public schools. I don't think we should celebrate the fact that we're shortchanging kids." 

"With this report," added Burris, "the Heritage Foundation puts its values front and forward — that schooling should be a free-for-all marketplace where states spend the least possible on educating the future generation of Americans, with no regulations to preserve quality." It's no accident, Burris added, that Heritage's top two states, Florida and Arizona, were ranked as the worst on the Network for Public Education's own report card this year. 

"These two states now have such a critical teacher shortage, due to their anti-public school agenda, that you do not even need a college degree to teach," said Burris. "Parents who are looking for the best states in which to educate their children should take this report card and turn it on its head." 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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