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Conservatives on “School Choice”–A Trojan Horse for Vouchers?

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. 

Related Stories: 

Four Reasons Finland’s Schools are Better Than Ours

“Waiting for Superman?” Keep Waiting!

Parents Pull the Trigger To Take Over Compton School

 

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13 comments

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10:12AM PST on Jan 6, 2011

The problem is that our entire system of Education in America is fundamentally flawed, and needs to be re-invented from the ground up. We are performing miserably versus the rest of the world, and there is NO EVIDENCE that throwing more money at the current system is going to help. The system simply is not working.

What is needed is a totally new system. And until we are ready to allow the underwriting of schools that are willing to experiment with new paradigms for learning and teaching, and find ones that actually WORK ... that produce educated students instead of failures ... we will continue to fail.

This hurts us with all our students, but it is killing our nation that we are failing to properly nourish our "brightest and best" (to borrow JFK's words) who have the potential to lead the world in intellectual realms but are now being "left behind".

So yes, resources ARE being siphoned off from the failing public school systems to fund experiments in alternatives to this failing system. We need to find SOMETHING, because our current system is broken and we as a nation continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the world.

The missing piece here, I think, is that those alternatives need to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny to judge their outcomes objectively, so that the best outcomes can be used to make the whole education system better.

10:01AM PST on Jan 6, 2011

thank you

9:44PM PST on Jan 5, 2011

These ARE the people who support creation "science" and the idea that we live on a planet created 6,000 years ago. Do I trust them with public education?

HELL, NO!

8:13PM PST on Jan 5, 2011

I think that (properly conducted) home schooling is the way to go.

7:24PM PST on Jan 5, 2011

Is the poll question a trick? Seriously?

6:49PM PST on Jan 5, 2011

Vouchers are the best way to fix the ailing education system and improve public schools. Fair competition only hurts the lazy and complacent among the educators.

Anyone who really cares about our childrens education would be in favor of school vouchers.

3:10PM PST on Jan 5, 2011

I don't see why public education is a problem. I graduated from a public high school and I went to the only visual arts college for women in the US with a scholarship and will be graduating from college in May. If I went to a charter, private, or was home schooled I wouldn't be where I am now. I'd probably be miserable in a field of study I hate with a burning passion of hate.

9:53AM PST on Jan 5, 2011

The regressive Republican Party of No is mean-spirited, religiously fanatical, scientifically ignorant, corrupt, hypocritical, racist, sexist, homophobic, global warming deniers, authoritarian, selfish, greedy, warmongering, and otherwise dangerous.

NEVER vote for Republicans.

5:21AM PST on Jan 5, 2011

Thanks for the info.

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