I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means…

Not every policy change is a reform, and I’m getting more than a little annoyed by efforts to paint things like tax cuts and voucher programs as “reforms.”

I’ve explained in previous posts why the abominable tax bill currently being rushed through Congress isn’t “reform.”  In several states, including Indiana, theocrats intent upon taking tax dollars from public school systems and directing those dollars to religious schools have employed a similar tactic, cloaking those efforts in the rhetoric of “educational reform.”

Betsy DeVos has frequently referred to one such program, in a county in Colorado, in glowing terms, so it was really satisfying to learn the results of a recent school board election in that county.

On Tuesday night, the longstanding fight over a controversial voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, appeared to have come to an end. In a local school board election that has found its way into the national debate over voucher programs, four anti-voucher candidates—Chris Schor, Kevin Leung, Anthony Graziano, and Krista Holtzmann—defeated reform-supporting candidates in a landslide.

According to the story in Mother Jones, Douglas County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The school district is large, with 67,000 students.

As Politico has put it, the county “has gone further than any district in the nation to reshape public education into a competitive, free-market enterprise.” Since 2009, the board has successfully ended a collective bargaining agreement with the local teachers union and enacted a “pay for performance” salary system for teachers.

Its most controversial move, though, came in 2011, when it approved a sweeping school voucher program that aimed to give up to 500 students publicly-funded scholarships to attend participating private schools. The county’s voucher program was the first district-created program in the country. Ninety-three percent of the pilot class of scholarship recipients enrolled in religious schools, according to court documents. It sparked outcry from those who argued that it was a diversion of public money away from public schools. Over the next few years, the suburban district in many ways become a model for conservatives looking to reform education nationwide and the group of reform-minded board members received support from national right-wing groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

That generous financial support kept pro-voucher commissioners on the school board until an election in 2015, when three members were ousted by opponents of the program. The Board was still majority pro-voucher, 4-3, but their power was weakened.

This month, after a campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars pour in from the Koch brothers, a Republican political committee on behalf of pro-voucher candidates and the teachers’ union on behalf of the anti-voucher candidates, the anti-voucher candidates swept to decisive victories in all seven races.

That voters were not swayed by the influx of money and rejected the voucher program was a great outcome. But here’s my beef. A spokesperson for the winning slate was quoted as follows:

“Students at every school, students at every grade level and students with varying needs, all of them won tonight because our schools can now continue the return to excellence that began two years ago, after it became clear that reform had failed our children.”

Reform didn’t fail. An effort to enrich religious schools at the expense of public ones failed.

If I learned one thing in law school and in the practice, it was this: he who frames the issue wins the debate. When political activists accept the other side’s framing, they are agreeing to fight on the other guy’s turf.

The word “reform” denotes improvement. Tax cuts for rich people at the expense of middle-class Americans isn’t “reform.” Robbing public schools in order to benefit religious schools isn’t “reform.” In both cases, it’s theft, and with respect to vouchers, it’s an effort to circumvent the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State.

Call it what it is.


  1. Vouchers also allow “legalized segregation”.

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

    ~ Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda

  2. “In both cases, it’s theft, and with respect to vouchers, it’s an effort to circumvent the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State.

    Call it what it is.”

    Absolutely, Professor!

  3. I totally agree with the issue referred to in the title of this blog; “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means…”. I have tried to watch these reports of the as yet undecided tax budget which includes repeal of Obamacare just as I watched the Trumpcare bill which included tax cuts as part of the issue. Being deaf and relying totally on closed captioning is sometimes beneficial; Trump has repeatedly (per captioning) referred to “tax cuts” while Congress refers to “tax reform”, these terms are not interchangeable. The school voucher issue is more important in the state of Indiana as we hold the record for number of voucher students in the nation – thanks to Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence. Now, some failing Indianapolis Public Schools will possibly be designated Charter Schools, for reasons beyond my comprehension. I thought “Charter Schools” provided guaranteed accelerated educational opportunities but “those terms may not mean what I think they mean”.

    Let me apply “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means…” to another issue; begin by changing “word” to “term” and I refer all of you to a front page article in the Indianapolis Star today. I am one never to hesitate saying “I told you so!”; especially when it is regarding the deaths of our children. Over a year ago the Johnson County health officials said the 7 childhood cancer cases did not qualify as a “cancer cluster”; little was said regarding any investigation regarding contamination of ground water and wells possibly being the cause. The article today, “Brockovich joins moms in raising awareness, Contamination claims get activist’s support”. The earlier reported 7 cases of childhood cancer where denied being considered a “cancer cluster” due to being grossly under reported; the National Cancer Institute reports rates of Johnson County Indiana cancer statistics in those under 20 years of age was 111 between 1999 and 2013, with nearly 40 cases reported in the county since 2010. There have already been deaths of some of these children; they will never have the opportunity to attend school on any level. Will those currently being treated and those who survive in this basically rural Indiana county be given the option of a Charter School or voucher student education under the DeVos/Trump plan? What are their chances for an education with the chaotic tax cuts/reform, health care situations, both of which effect the national education system.

  4. In boulder colo,10 or so years ago,the city council had meetings on supporting public schools, cuts,etc. they decided to end school buses.. you walked.. anyway,as it be, parents now got up earlier,and went to work earlier to drive thier kids to school,,, who won?

  5. The school board election described would never happen in Indiana. Indiana will continue to be the linchpin and the precedent of the conservative movement, no matter the facts and the effects of their policies.

  6. Just as an aside, this “reform” will devastate higher education in two new ways. First, student loan interest will no longer be tax deductible. Second, graduate students will have to count the value of their education as income, so a grad student with a stipend of $10,000.00 might pay taxes on “income” of $50,000.00 or more. Clearly, an educated electorate is a serious threat to Republicans.

  7. That matter of word meaning is a peculiar national failure…AND IT DID NOT GET ITS START DURING RECENT GENERATIONS.

    Many critics of American education date the decline in language skills sometime immediately after a certain particularly disagreeable and/or dysfunctional policy had been introduced to American education. Those critics should think of old people, like me who were “educated” long before these many so-called at-fault educational policies were adopted, measure old people’s incompetent word use, read random Facebook posts from old people, read email they receive, listen to conversation at class reunions, consider that we old people’s inept language “skills” were “learned” long before the blame-point education policies that are currently under attack, and then rethink who and what may be blamed for bungled word use.

    Also, bearing on the importance of word use skills, in 1967, I taught a high school English course in Escalon, California that was unique, to say the least. The textbook previously adopted, presented English grammar almost entirely without rules and depended instead on word meaning. Its central theme was that paying close attention to the notation (and connotation) of words, most writing and speaking will evolve into acceptable grammar. It noted, though, that before getting one’s words and sentences right, a writer must have something to say.

    How can anyone say what they mean if they do not know what they mean to say?

    My students liked that approach. I think I learned more English teaching that course than all my previous study had taught me, and to the present, I am able to write fair English—close examination excluded—without depending on tedious and boring rules of grammar.

    Anyway, word use and word meaning is now a national conversation, and some might say it has become a national issue. So, I purport that such close examination of meanings is one of the few promising outcomes of present political discourse.

  8. Peggy >> Clearly, an educated electorate is a serious threat to Republicans. <<<

    You are so right. Critical thinking is a real and present danger to the Pence Wing of Bible Thumpers, and Corporatism. The Reactionary Right has been excellent at marketing their agenda, which is Profit over All. Rules and regulations that govern the interaction of the profiteers, are labeled as "Big Government".

    Big Government is the dog whistle. The Bible Thumpers see Big Government as an evil force that prevents them from imposing their theocracy on others. The extraction industry coal, oil, etc., view any pollution controls as "onerous regulations". The for profit education industry like wise assigns controls or performance standards and especially unions as Big Government interference.

    Sadly, today and in the preceding decades Government has not been used as a tool to protect the people, but as a tool to enhance profits.

  9. A harder question than is this reform is what does reform mean? Is there a definition that a majority of Americans would agree on?

    I was appalled when “progressive” became an epithet.

  10. It is not, strictly speaking, the gummint that is enforcing private views on the rest of us and at our expense (hardly what Madison and Jefferson had in mind); it is rather those who have managed to capture the reins of government. There is precedent. Harvard, our oldest, was put together for, among other things, making religion available to the masses.

    The difference is, of course, in who pays. Private schools can teach tree worship if they please, but publicly supported schools are supposedly neutral in teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and more sophisticated courses of study that lead to good citizenship as opposed to salvation of souls. The DeVoses of this world pretend that there is no difference between secular and religious citizenship. Wrong, and via the words of Jesus himself, who in the red-letter version of scripture became the first advocate of church-state separation as he noted that we are to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” I am sure Madison and Jefferson would agree.

  11. vouchers are legalized segregation? A cursory review of PUBLIC schools would suggest they are, and have been, prime examples of segregation. Our local IPS is a prime example over the years. To be fair, both public and private schools at all levels reflect the local biases of society, as well as the biases of those running public and private schools. The taxpayer often pays more for less performance and MUCH LESS influence over operations in a public school environment. Private schools seem more economical and more willing to address concerns of parents, students, and taxpayers, all stakeholders who are often ignored.

  12. I understand the movement toward churches as places for schools to meet, as well as serving as safe places for Voters to cast ballots with candidates safely surrounded by numbers of local citizens. The Schools went from childhood disease centers up to 1960 and by 1970 just function as disease and referral centers. Parents who can stay with their sons and daughters as volunteers and low-paid aides and substitutes to be free to move ahead with options in commuting distances.
    Colorado conditions are likely to be much harder for Boulder School owners to operate than much less challenging flatland Mississippi Valley forested slopes with great soil once. With more and more fatal effects on minors in Indiana since 1970, more schools should be quarantined for use as treatment centers.

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