As regular readers of this blog know, Morton Marcus and I recently co-authored and published a small book on the women’s movement. (If you haven’t purchased it, I really wish you would…) We discovered that–despite our very different preoccupations–we work together well, and we’ve been considering another project, this time, an examination of educational privatization–aka the voucher movement.
But researching the consequences that most concern us ranges from tricky to impossible. There’s plenty of research demonstrating that privatization has failed to deliver what proponents promised: better test scores. Researchers can access that sort of data; many have, and the results are pretty straightforward–which is why voucher cheerleaders now talk about parental choice rather than improved educational outcomes.
We have another concern: that vouchers facilitate and encourage the polarization of the polity, undermining civic cohesion at a time when increasing population diversity makes civic unity both more difficult and more important.
The research problem is what academics call “self-selection.” Even if we were able to test the thesis that graduates of private, mostly religious voucher schools emerge less civically knowledgable or more religiously biased or more prone to misogyny, etc., there would be no way to attribute those outcomes to the schools; the likelihood is that parents choosing such schools considered those outcomes to be a feature, not a bug.
I ran into a similar roadblock several years ago; I’d hoped to research the effects of the built environment on social capital. Did people living in gated communities have measurably different connections to, or interactions with, other people? Again, the “chicken and egg” issue confounded me: it was likely that most people who chose to live in those gated communities already had similar levels of social capital.
We may or may not develop a data-driven analysis of the anti-democratic results of school privatization. We both recognize that our public schools are far from perfect–years of neighborhood segregation, among other things, created huge differences between schools. Some of the charter schools that were initially intended to be more innovative public schools have become indistinguishable from private academies. And not all parents who place children in a private or charter school are doing so in order to indoctrinate their offspring (or protect them from Black or Brown classmates).
That said, many of these schools are teaching a very Whitewashed American history.
NPE identified hundreds of charter schools, predominantly in red states, that use the classical brand or other conservative dog whistles to attract white Christian families to enroll in the school. From featured religious music videos to statements that claim they offer a faith-friendly environment, these charter schools are opening at an accelerated rate, with at least 66 additional schools in the pipeline to open by 2024. While some of these schools, such as the Roger Bacon Academies, are long-standing, nearly half of the schools we identified opened after the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Hillsdale College is a small, conservative Christian college that has long been noted for far-Right indoctrination, and it is one of the most influential organizations pushing these charters.
The small conservative Christian college in Michigan has become a major player in Ron DeSantis’s Florida; as the report says, “Tug any thread of Florida’s present education policy, and you will find this small Michigan college at the other end.”
Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn was tagged by Donald Trump to head his short-lived 1776 Commission, charged with creating nationalistic history curriculum (a version of which is now offered by Hillsdale). He has made the occasional misstep, as when Hillsdale’s charter move into Tennessee was stalled after Arnn was caught saying that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
Hillsdale works through its Barney Charter School initiative as well as providing its classical curriculum to member charters at no cost. In some cases, as with the Optima chain in Florida, the charter may be operated by a for-profit charter management firm (in the case of Optima, both the charter chains and the charter management organization are owned by the same person). The report found that among this new wave of conservative charter schools, the percentage of those operated by for-profit charter management companies is twice that in the charter sector as a whole.
Not every charter that advertises a classical curriculum is Rightwing; here in Indianapolis, Herron High School is an admirable example–and proudly public. But the morphing of charters into Rightwing indoctrination academies continues to gather steam.
I’m convinced that this movement endangers American democracy–but convincing data proving my hypothesis isn’t likely to emerge until Americans are living with the very undemocratic results.