Tag Archives: public schools

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.

The Continuing Attack on Public Education

And Indiana’s legislative session continues…..

In the Fort Wayne Journel-Gazette, Vic Smith has accused the Indiana legislature of a frontal assault on public education.

Two bills have been filed that would create the biggest expansion of private school vouchers Indiana has ever seen. They would advance the privatization of our educational system in line with the plans of voucher-inventor Milton Friedman, who supported the abolishment of public education.

I didn’t think that the Republican supermajority would make a direct attack on public education in an election year, but it appears the Republican leadership is poised to push forward a radical new private school voucher plan. It would be the biggest voucher expansion since Gov. Mike Pence’s voucher plan costing taxpayers $40 million in new dollars and diverting $120 million from public schools was enacted in 2013.

Smith asserts that these measures are part of a longer and more ambitious effort to replace public schools with a “marketplace” of private schools funded by government, but without government oversight. He points out that although 94% of Indiana’s children still attend public schools, those public schools are being systematically starved of resources that are being redirected to private schools.

Smith sees this assault as intentional, but let’s give voucher proponents the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they genuinely believe that privatized schools will offer better educational results. (Put aside, for the moment, important questions about what we believe constitutes a good education, and how we measure that.)

To date, research has provided no evidence that vouchers improve anything other than parental satisfaction and the bottom lines of struggling parochial schools.

A recent study of Louisiana voucher schools by the Brookings Institution found student achievement actually declined, and fairly substantially.

When comparing school performance, researchers struggle to distinguish differences in schools’ effectiveness from variation in the types of students who choose those schools.

A voucher lottery provides an unusual opportunity to measure the effectiveness of private schools. The lottery serves as a randomized trial, which is the gold standard of research methods. Random selection means that lottery winners and losers are identical, on average, when they apply for the voucher. Any differences that emerge after the lottery can therefore be attributed to the private-school attendance of the winners.

The results were startling. The researchers, a team of economists from Berkeley, Duke, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the scores of the lottery winners dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of the lottery losers. The effects were very large: roughly a quarter of a standard deviation in math, social studies, and science. There were no effects on reading scores.

In previous posts, I have argued that the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, can be attributed in large part to people who did not understand the government they were elected to manage, and who substituted ideology for competence. The voucher movement displays the same hubris.

In both cases, children are the victims.

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.

It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.

 

How Dumb Is Rick Santorum?

People for the American Way have posted a recent radio interview with former U.S. Senator and all-star culture warrior Rick Santorum.

During the discussion, Santorum said that Christians have allowed their faith to be removed from the public square and need to start fighting back, arguing that removing the Bible from public school classrooms is not neutrality but rather the promotion of the secular worldview. He suggested that conservative Christians should respond by “calling secularism a religion because if we did, then we could ban that too.”

Claiming that the absence of religion is itself a religion, Santorum said that Christians must reassert themselves and insist that Christianity “should be taught in the schools” instead of worrying about offending people.

Leaving aside the massive constitutional ignorance Santorum (once again) displays,  I’m intrigued. How do you ban the absence of something?

Earth to Santorum: “secular” means “not religious.” It doesn’t mean “anti-religious.” An experiment in science class is secular; the study of the periodical table of elements is secular. English grammar is secular. History–even when it includes study of the influence of religious beliefs and movements–is secular.

Stuff that isn’t religious is secular. It’s a descriptive term, not an ideology.

The removal of religious doctrine from the public sector (government)(which is not at all the same thing as its removal from the public square, where religious expression is protected by the Free Exercise Clause) is simply a recognition that in a free society, the government doesn’t get to impose or endorse a set of preferred religious beliefs. The transmittal of religious doctrine is the prerogative of families and religious institutions.

There are a lot of culture warriors who really do understand the First Amendment, but choose to pander to the sizable number of Americans who don’t. I don’t think Santorum is one of those. I think he’s a true believer.

And not a very good thinker.

In fact, his diagnosis of secularism reminds me a lot of his diagnosis of Terri Schavo. He sees things that aren’t there.