Category Archives: Education / Youth

Footing The Bill For Proselytizing

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has reported on Indiana’s school voucher program–the largest such program in the United States–and has followed that report with a wider-ranging, scathing editorial listing additional issues with the program.

The newspaper’s revelations didn’t surprise those of us who have been watching what I can only call “the voucher scam.” Whatever the motives of the people who originally supported these programs–and I know that some of them were sincerely trying to improve educational opportunities for poor children– vouchers have become the weapon of choice for theocrats who have long felt threatened by public education.

As the article notes,

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.

More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana’s school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.

Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program – a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools – 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press.

The reporters checked the websites of 131 Christian schools that participate in Indiana’s “Choice” program, looking for details about their curricula. If a school didn’t have a website, or the information on the site was inadequate, they reached out via phone and email. Most failed to respond.

Who are Abeka and Bob Jones University Press? How do their textbooks compare with standard classroom materials?

Abeka, a textbook company, is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, a far-right religious university in Florida that bans “dancing” and “satanic practices” in its code of conduct. Bob Jones University Press is affiliated with its eponymous university, which outlawed interracial dating until the year 2000.

According to education scholars, the textbooks produced by Abeka and Bob Jones are filled with inaccurate history and distorted science. A  historian is quoted in the article saying that the history texts don’t teach anything “that could accurately be called history;” instead, she said, “They are essentially proselytizing for Protestant Christianity.”

In a middle school American history textbook published by Abeka, titled “America: Land I Love,” Satan is blamed for the spread of the theory of evolution and modern psychology, according to a book procured by HuffPost.

A high school world history textbook from Bob Jones University Press also pushes falsehoods and stereotypes. One chapter asserts that it was Jewish religious leaders who plotted to kill Jesus Christ, a myth that has long been used to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.

Of the 318 schools that currently participate in Indiana’s voucher program, more than 95 percent are explicitly religious. According to the Journal Gazette’s calculations, at least 4,240 children receiving vouchers funded by tax dollars attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones’ textbooks.

Of course, not all participating schools use these texts, and some 34,000 students have now participated in Indiana’s voucher program, so it is only fair to consider how they are doing overall. After all, voucher programs have now been around long enough to be evaluated.

The news isn’t good.

The research simply doesn’t support the rosy claims made by proponents. In Indiana, studies show that children using vouchers have an average annual loss of 0.10 standard deviations in mathematics when compared to comparable public school students; that same research found no statistically meaningful difference in reading.  Research from other states has yielded even more disappointing results.

These schools may be bringing children to Jesus, but they aren’t improving their educations.

So–let’s sum up what we know: Significant resources are being diverted from Indiana’s struggling public schools in order to send funds to private religious schools that do not improve children’s performance in reading, and significantly worsen their performance in math. An indeterminate number of those schools substitute extremist religious indoctrination for accurate instruction in history and science.

This is the Mike Pence “model” that Betsy DeVos wants to replicate nationwide.

These are your tax dollars at work.

What We Don’t Know…

When I give presentations like the one I recently posted, addressing deficits in civic literacy and the extent of American ignorance of our constitutional system, I often include a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Audiences tend to gasp. Only 36%! How awful!

Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released the results of a similar survey taken just this year, and not only has there been no improvement, the results are actually worse.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

When asked about rights protected by the First Amendment, most of those who could name at least one right connected the Amendment to Freedom of Speech. But naming a right obviously isn’t the same thing as understanding it: 39% of those respondents said they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on “any issue of national security” without government approval.

I’m sure Donald Trump believes that any reporting critical of him is an “issue of national security.” Definitions can be so pesky….

I know I sound like a broken record, but civic ignorance matters. It’s one thing to have different policy preferences and to engage in debates about the relative merits of those preferences; such debates can be illuminating and productive. Most of us have been in situations where we are “schooled” by a person arguing for a different approach to an issue; sometimes, we’re introduced to information we didn’t have, other times to arguments we haven’t considered. Even if we don’t change our own preferences, we appreciate where others are coming from.

However, when one party to a political argument is clearly ignorant of the most basic premises of American government, we don’t consider that person’s point of view legitimate. Those who know better will discount the person, and any organization he or she might represent, in the future.

The problem is, too few of us know better; as a result, we can often be persuaded by arguments that a civically-literate person would recognize as specious.

When Americans don’t know squat about their government, democracy doesn’t work. Voters don’t have the tools to evaluate candidates’ platforms or assess their fitness for office. They can’t hold public officials accountable, because they don’t know what those officials are supposed to be accountable to. 

Activists, candidates and office holders who don’t know what they’re talking about ought to be marginalized for that reason– but as we have seen, when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist,” even profound and obvious ignorance is no longer an electoral handicap. Today, too many Americans don’t vote for the person they consider most knowledgable and thoughtful; they vote for the demagogue who is most closely channeling their bigotries.

We are about to discover that the old adage was wrong: what you don’t know can hurt you.

 

Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.

 

 

Pence: Black Is White

National media outlets report that Mike Pence is again touting the virtues of “school choice.” Evidently, in the alternate reality that he and Betsy DeVos inhabit, vouchers and other “choice” programs are working wonderfully.

The evidence suggests otherwise–unless by “working,” they mean subsidizing religious schools and benefitting business’ bottom line.

Two recent reports, one from the Washington Post and another, lengthy investigation from the New York Times, convincingly rebut Pence’s sunny view of these programs. The Post article begins with the contrast between Pence’s reality and the one the rest of us inhabit:

The Trump administration has made the District’s federally mandated school voucher program Exhibit A in its campaign to allow public funds to flow to private schools. Vice President Pence has called the 13-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “case study in school choice success.”

In truth, the performance of the D.C. voucher program calls into question the wisdom of spending upward of $200 million in federal tax money on private schooling in a city where students already have many educational choices. And it’s a cautionary tale of how badly crafted voucher initiatives can hurt the very students they’re designed to help.

The article details “disappointing” student achievement, poor oversight, and a lack of available information that would allow parents to make informed choices. As a result, significant numbers of eligible families turn down the vouchers.

The Times article is a lengthy, detailed look at Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and its embrace of for-profit charter schools.

Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.

The article makes an important point: it’s impossible to understand what happened in  Michigan’s schools unless you recognize that for-profit schools aren’t in the business of education; they are in the business of business.  These charters have become “potential financial assets to outside entities, inevitably complicating their broader social missions.”

The key phrase in the above paragraph is “broader social mission.” Unlike voucher schools, which are private and inevitably siphon resources from the public system, it is possible to operate charters successfully as options within a public school system. I would argue, however, that (a) the use of for-profit entities to manage such schools is incompatible with their social mission, and (b) strict oversight by and accountability to the relevant school board is essential.

The reason we call them public schools is because they serve a critical public function.

In the absence of any credible evidence that privatizing our schools improves either educational or civic outcomes, we should direct our energies–and our tax dollars–to improving our public systems.

 

 

 

 

 

It Really Isn’t About the Quality of Education

No one who watched Mike Pence dramatically expand Indiana’s voucher program at the expense of the state’s public schools, and certainly no one who has followed the appointment and appalling performance of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, could come away thinking “Boy, those people really care about education!”

Despite their rhetoric, Pence, DeVos and a number of other proponents of “educational choice” have a decidedly religious agenda. DeVos has been quoted as saying that vouchers will usher in “God’s kingdom.” Pence’s voucher program hasn’t improved educational outcomes, but it has financially benefitted the religious schools that participate.

And the religious schools that do participate in Indiana’s voucher program have seen to it that some children don’t even have that much-touted “choice.” As Chalkbeat recently reported,

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

Of the 27 schools with explicitly anti-LGBT policies, 14 were accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, a pro school-choice group that provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

The Chalkbeat article quotes religious school officials who stress the importance of respecting the religious views of schools operated by different denominations. I have no quarrel with respecting their right to teach their beliefs; I do have a quarrel with their right to have those beliefs subsidized with my tax dollars.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that vouchers to religious schools did not violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment, because the vouchers (theoretically) went to the parents, who were free to use them at either religious or secular schools. The problem with this approach is the same as the problem facing gay children in Indiana: the “choice” is illusory, because virtually all of the participating schools are religious.

Charter schools–which are still public schools– manage to operate while being subject to the same constitutional and civil rights constraints that apply to traditional public schools. There’s no reason that private schools–religious or not– that benefit from voucher dollars shouldn’t be required to do likewise.

Of course, at some point, Hoosiers are going to have to face up to the fact that although vouchers do not improve student’s test scores, they certainly do improve the bottom lines of participating religious schools.

Despite being marketed as a way to give parents a “choice” to enroll their children in “better” schools, Indiana’s vouchers are simply a financial windfall for religious schools at the expense of our public schools. And if a few LGBTQ kids face discrimination, well that’s just too bad.

It certainly doesn’t bother DeVos and Pence.