Conservatives on “School Choice”–A Trojan Horse for Vouchers?
In what may be the opening salvo of conservative-style “education reform,” right-wing think tanks and policymakers will sponsor “National School Choice Week,” January 23-29, 2011.
The website’s been fully operational since late October 2010. The Facebook page has around 8,000-plus “fans” as of the latest measurement. Facebook ads touting the week of celebrating “school choice” selectively dot the right-hand sidebars of women and parents with Facebook profiles.
Exactly what does the week-long highlight hope to achieve? Apparently, much like the health care “town halls,” people who uncritically favor charter schools, school vouchers, subsidies for homeschooling and other methods of subtly de-funding public education in the name of “choice” will gather in town halls during the week-long event.
There will be sponsored showings of a two year-old documentary designed to provoke outrage, “The Cartel,” about the discrepancy between the state of NJ’s per pupil cost versus student performance on national achievement tests. Reviews by an expert in education finance who examined the claims regarding school spending were scathing, to say the least. As are those by established film critics. Apparently, this is no “Waiting for Superman,” which–regardless what one makes of the facts presented in the film, was at least a professionally-produced piece by an experienced storyteller. Poor factual basis and inept filmmaking, say the people who’ve seen Cartel.
The “school choice” website is meant to capture email addresses and encourage parents undecided about the quality of their local schools to instigate for a charter instead, or perhaps support the passage of “parent trigger” laws like the California law that has been featured on Care2.com.
Why the shift to charters, whereas previously, many conservatives sought vouchers? Charter schools could be the K-12 analogue to for-profit colleges that have been the subject of Congressional investigation. For-profit colleges soak up federal student loan money while aggressively and, in some cases, dishonestly, recruiting for students.
With K-12 students, their parents’ insecurity about the quality of their children’s schools can encourage parents to pull their children from a mediocre-to-low performing public school and put them in a charter instead. While many charters are non-profit and do an excellent job of educating underprivileged children, others are for-profit businesses subject to corruption. When accompanied by school closures or if competing for public school space, public charters reliant on private/public hybrid funding can have the unintended effect of reducing the size of the pie for existing public schools.
Finally, the list of co-sponsoring “partner” organizations reads like a list of Who’s Who among conservative and religious right-wing activists: The Foundation for Education Choice (conservative economist Milt Friedman’s group), The Reason Foundation (“free minds, free markets”), The Heartland Institute (“free market solutions”), the Georgia Charter Schools Association, actively astroturfing as the “Georgia Parent Advocacy Network” (they share the same address, 600 West Peachtree Street, NW, Suite 1555, Atlanta, GA, 30308), ad nauseaum.
For an example of a supposed “grassroots” organization, see Betsy DeVos. She’s a Michigan heiress and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and sister to the man who founded the war-profiteering corporation Blackwater (Xe). She also heads the innocuous-sounding American Federation for Children–not simply an advocacy group, but an organization affiliated with a PAC. The PAC makes political donations to conservative candidates who are hostile to public education and to regulation of the for-profit K-12 schools industry.
Most parents (77%, according to Gallup) are very happy with their suburban or exurban schools. The level of satisfaction increases when parents can choose from among the local public school, a public magnet, or a public charter: some 88% of parents surveyed between 1993-2007 had kids who attended their parents’ first choice school, a 5% increase in the rate of parents exercising this choice. (Religious, nonsectarian private school attendance rose by a tiny increment–12% of American students attend private schools.) It seems American parents have the amount of choice in schools they need.
So how does the emergency of kids trapped in poorly-performing schools square with the otherwise contented attitude most Americans hold when it comes to their school-aged kids?
Fix the broken schools, yes. For that, we’ll have to address poverty.
But let’s not get carried away with believing that a small concentration of dramatically broken schools represent all American public schools. Some conservatives groups thrive on fear. Where they don’t find any, they whip it up. They manufacture it–just look at the effort to stop health care reform. Witness the success of FOX (It’s Not) News.
Let’s continue improving and properly funding our education system with a realistic eye to its strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the silver bullet to education woes might be, let’s not forget that fully funding and then wisely allocating taxpayer dollars to ensure every child has access to an excellent public education–free of cost–will have to remain a priority, even in tough economic times.
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