Tag Archives: choice

Well, Give Them Points For Honesty

Readers of this blog may be tired of hearing my periodic rants about the GOP’s war on public education. If so, they need to skip today’s meditation.

I have my own suspicions about the real reasons for their animus. As political scientists and educators have repeatedly pointed out, public schools are constitutive of a public; in a rapidly diversifying population, public education is one of the few remaining “street corners” where differences in background, religion and ethnicity can be honored under an over-riding philosophy of governance. Public schools are where we can at least make a stab at attaining e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

That lofty goal is what the war on public education is really about.

Granted, some of the GOP’s privatizers see voucher programs as a way of killing off the hated teachers’ union, and others evidently just despise anything government does–convinced by arguments from ALEC and the Koch’s network that the private sector does absolutely everything better than government, despite decades of research confirming that voucher schools fail to improve educational outcomes.

But at its base, the war on public schooling is a war on the way most of us understand America’s Constitutional philosophy and aspirations.

Living up to those aspirations requires knowing about the country’s past successes and failures. It requires civics education that emphasizes an important element of citizenship–the American principle that the law should treat citizens based upon their behavior and not their skin color or religion.

Those principles– and others that flow from them–are currently considered “woke” by America’s White Christian Nationalists. That’s the real basis of their attacks on the institutions supporting them, and sometimes, in unguarded moments, they admit it.

The New Republic recently reported on “School Choice Week.”

It’s National School Choice Week, that annual right-wing P.R. campaign to defund public schools that pretends to really just care about the children. But this year’s NSCW comes with a twist: Amid conservatives’ outcry over history lessons on race and LGBTQ rights and awareness in schools, some proponents of the “educational freedom” movement are pitching it as an antidote to the supposed indoctrination of students by leftie teachers and administrators.

In an interview on Tuesday with Fox News host Harris Faulkner, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott framed “school choice” as a way for parents to give their children a proper education free of woke lessons. “ABC, not CRT—it’s that simple,” said Scott, referring to “critical race theory.” “We need to teach the basics of education. We don’t need to teach people that, because of the color of your skin, you’re an oppressor or a victim.” (Scott introduced a resolution on Monday to officially recognize National School Choice Week. He was joined by many Republican senators, including Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Rick Scott—and a lone Democrat, Dianne Feinstein.)

The Educational Freedom Institute, and the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation argue that “school choice” can “help level the playing field” in the struggle between “conservative families” and “progressive teachers” who want to “proselytize” in the classroom

Attacks on public education are getting a second wind from reactionary resistance to  the progress of Black, Brown and female Americans.

“Families should not be stuck in an education system that actively undermines parental rights and ideologically grooms children,” argued Kaylee McGhee, a deputy editor at the Washington Examiner, on Monday. “They deserve the freedom to yank their students out of a school that disrespects their values and send them to one that better fits their needs.”

But McGhee gave the game away later in her piece—that “school choice” is really about forcing school districts to align with right-wing ideas of education, or otherwise wither away from a lack of resources.

Ironically, the great majority of people who embrace Ms. McGhee’s “values” are largely rural–and  as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, most rural areas are too thinly populated to support private or religious alternatives to those “woke” public schools. In their zeal to fight accurate history instruction that they inaccurately label CRT, and to ban books of which they disapprove, GOP lawmakers are draining resources from existing schools in rural areas–rural folks only option other than home schooling.

As the linked article notes, what’s missing in these diatribes from McGhee, Scott, and others is any actual concern for the nation’s children– the 90% of students who remain in public schools whose funds are being diverted in the name of  “educational freedom” as well as the children whose parents believed the marketing and put their kids in a fly-by-night voucher school that went out of business.

This fight has never been about the quality of education. At least now, some voucher proponents are admitting it.



Universal “Scholarships”

Both the IBJ and the Capital Chronicle have reported on the legislature’s current effort to totally privatize education in Indiana. If passed, Senate Bill 305 would allow any and all parents to get taxpayer money to enroll their children in a private school or home school them. 

The legislation would dramatically expand Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs)–a more neutral term for the vouchers that–for very good reason– are no longer as popular as they once were.

In 2021, Indiana’s General Assembly approved ESA’s for special education students by burying the proposal in the budget, where it escaped much in the way of sustained scrutiny. SB305 would expand the program to all students, via a universal Education Scholarship Account.

The existing ESAs are limited to students who qualify for special education, and whose families meet income limits. (Not that those limits aren’t generous–a family of four can make up to $154,000 annually. That’s three times the amount required for a student to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.)

SB 305 would extend the ESA program to all students, regardless of a student’s educational needs or their family’s income level.

So what’s wrong with ESA’s? 
As numerous observers point out, there’s a lot wrong. For one thing, the bill lacks any public oversight or measures ensuring accountability. The state would simply give tax dollars to parents who would be trusted to spend it on their children’s education (there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism to ensure that the dollars would actually be used for education) at any school of their choice, or for home schooling and/or educational materials.
Apparently, all a parent needs to do to get some $7500 per student is fill out an online application promising to spend “part of the money” for the study of “reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies or science.” No standards. No requirements for art, music, foreign language or–perish the thought–civics. Not even those pesky criminal background checks required of public school teachers and volunteers.

Interestingly, the program would be managed by the state’s treasurer–not the Department of Education. 

Clearly, education isn’t the goal.

Researchers have exhaustively documented the results of current voucher programs, and repeatedly demonstrated that these programs have failed to improve educational outcomes. Over 90% of voucher recipients take them to religious schools that frequently substitute dogma for science and history. My own research confirms that–in Indiana at least– few, if any, include civics instruction. (My personal favorite among the history textbooks most widely used in these religious schools describes slave trade as “sometimes unwilling black immigration.” Ya think?)

As the Capital Chronicle reported,

Indiana has about 87,000 private school students, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). About 44,000 of those use the state’s Choice Scholarship program — which allows families to receive vouchers to attend private schools. But the remaining 43,000 would be eligible for the grant, which would average around $7,500 statewide.

That would add more than $300 million a year to what the state is already sending to private, mostly religious schools.

The voucher program started similarly with a cap of 7,500 students at a cost of $15 million. The cap doubled the next year and now there is no limit and a current annual cost of $240 million.

As I reminded readers a few days ago, Indiana’s current voucher program classifies families that earn up to $145,000 per year as “poor” enough to have the state pay for their kids to attend private schools. Qualification for state-funded childcare and/or pre-kindergarden is a different matter: families bringing home a mere $27,500 are “too rich” to qualify.

None of this makes sense unless the legislature’s actual goal is to encourage an exodus from the state’s public schools, a goal that furthers other longtime efforts: destroying the teacher’s union, and finding a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition against funneling tax dollars to religious organizations.

SB 305’s proposed expansion would cost a fortune and fail to deliver educational benefits. Worse, those dollars would come from our already under-resourced public schools. That would especially harm rural Hoosiers who live in areas too sparsely populated to support private alternatives.

Since it is no longer possible to defend vouchers on educational grounds, this misbegotten effort is being sold under the current MAGA banner of “parental choice.” 

Whenever I hear these culture warriors utter the word “choice,” I expect a bolt of lightning to strike. They want the “choice” to avoid vaccinations, the “choice” not to have their children learn accurate history, the “choice” to keep “Heather Has Two Mommies” out of the library…

But other people’s choices? (The choice to support sound, secular public education, or terminate a pregnancy, for example?) Not so fast!

If SB 305 passes, it will certainly affect the choices of people who might otherwise be thinking of relocating to Indiana. 






Back to School

We Americans are suckers for bumper sticker solutions to complicated problems. When it comes to education, those who don’t want to deal with the thorny issues of public education reform insist that we can sidestep contentious decisions about curriculum, resources and equity, and just give parents “choices,” by which they mean voucher programs or charter schools.

So how’s that been working out?

In Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court recently struck down a Denver charter school “initiative,” the Denver Post reported that

the district created a make-believe charter school called the Choice Scholarship Charter School that would collect the state per-pupil funds. A portion of that $6,100 per student would be sent to the student’s chosen school in the form of a check to the parent, who would use it for tuition.

It’s not enough that the virtual charter school had no buildings, employed no teachers and had no curriculum. Its students never attended a day of class. The school’s existence was to collect money for private schools.

Sixteen of the 23 private schools under the program’s 2011 pilot phase were religious in character, and 93 percent of the 271 scholarship recipients in 2011 enrolled in a religious school. Fourteen of those schools were outside of the district’s boundaries.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently compiled a report detailing current research on charters, and concluded that “While there’s little difference in the overall performance of charter schools and public schools, charters are riddled with fraud and identified with a lack of transparency that leads to more fraud.”

The problems go well beyond outright scams, however. In Tampa, the state Board of Education has voted to include a new requirement in the charter application process ­­­—  school hopefuls must now disclose which charter groups and companies they have been affiliated with in the last five years. As a member of the  Board explained, although some charter schools thrive, others have experienced recurring problems and closed.

Among them is Newpoint Tampa, which closed in 2013 after declining enrollment and financial problems. School district officials said the school’s board meetings were not being held in public or in an appropriate manner…

Earlier this year, two Newpoint charter schools in Pensacola that were run by the same management company operating the Tampa school — Newpoint Education Partners — were shut down after allegations of grade-tampering and contractual violations, the Pensacola News Journal reported.

Because of stories like these, charter school experts say placing extra scrutiny on operators is a must. The goal is to prevent those who have operated schools experiencing serious problems from opening more.

Oversight, obviously, is critical. But we’re talking about a lot of money, and political clout can counter accountability measures. In Ohio, lobbyists succeeding in delaying passage of a charter school reform measure that had broad bipartisan support. The Columbus Dispatch reported on derailment of a bill to implement significant charter-school reforms after charters had been sharply criticized both inside and outside the state.

Sources told the Dispatch that lobbyists were very active behind the scenes, especially the Batchelder Group,representing the White Hat group, a major for-profit charter-school operator run by David Brennan, an important GOP contributor.

Similar stories from other states are plentiful.

The moral of this story is not that charter schools are bad. Some are, many aren’t. Just like traditional public schools.

The moral of this story is: there aren’t easy answers or magic bullets–in education or any other policy domain. Bumper sticker solutions to complex problems often create more complex problems.

The performance of any school depends upon a large number of factors, none of which have much to do with whether the school is a charter or a traditional public school. If we really want to improve American education, we can’t avoid the hard work of defining desirable outcomes, identifying the qualities that define a good teacher, figuring out how to balance accountability with the school-level autonomy that will allow professionals to do their jobs, and ameliorating the effects of poverty that have been shown to impede learning.

The real “choice” is between fixing or abandoning our public schools.