Tag Archives: vouchers

Subsidizing Bigotry

As the country’s diversity and tribalism have grown, America’s public schools have become more necessary than ever. The public school is one of the last “street corners” where children of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to learn–ideally–not just “reading, writing and arithmetic” but the history and philosophy of the country they share.

Today’s Americans read different books and magazines, visit different websites, listen to different music, watch different television programs, and occupy different social media bubbles. In most communities, we’ve lost a shared daily newspaper. The experiences we do share continue to diminish.

Given this fragmentation, the assaults on public education are assaults on a shared America.

Nevertheless, politicians and (especially) religious adherents who feel threatened by diversity and modernity have worked tirelessly to support voucher programs that allow parents to remove their children from public school systems and send them to private–almost always religious–schools, where they study with “their own kind.” The rhetoric around these programs typically defends them as “allowing children to escape failing schools”–although those “failing” schools are hardly helped by sending their already inadequate resources to private schools–despite consistent research showing that vouchers virtually never lead to academic improvement. (They do, however, lead to increased racial segregation.)

As an added indignity, voucher programs send tax dollars to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ children and children with LGBTQ parents. Here in Indiana, Cathedral High School, which received over a million dollars in 2018, fired a gay teacher;  Roncalli High School, which also has accepted vouchers worth millions fired a much-loved gay counselor who was in a same-sex marriage.

Recently, in a welcome announcement, two major contributors to Florida’s voucher program announced that they would no longer be contributing to that state’s program, which also allowed recipient schools to deny admission to gay students.

Two of the largest banks in the U.S. say they will stop donating millions of dollars to Florida’s private school voucher program after a newspaper investigation found that some of the program’s beneficiaries discriminate against LGBTQ students.

In a statement to NBC News and CNBC on Wednesday evening, Wells Fargo confirmed that it would no longer participate.

“We have reviewed this matter carefully and have decided to no longer support Step Up for Students,” the San Francisco-based bank said of the voucher program. “All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind.”

In a tweet to a Florida lawmaker Tuesday, Fifth Third Bank, based in Cincinnati, said it has told officials with the voucher program that it will also stop participating.

An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found 156 private Christian schools with anti-gay views that participated in Florida’s program. Those schools educated more than 20,000 students whose tuition was paid by Florida taxpayers–including, obviously, LGBTQ taxpayers.

The investigation found that 83 of the 156 schools with anti-gay views refuse to enroll LGBTQ students, and that some number of those schools also exclude students whose parents are gay.

“Florida’s scholarship programs, often referred to as school vouchers, sent more than $129 million to these religious institutions,” the Sentinel reported on Jan. 23. “That means at least 14 percent of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome.”

So much for the American “street corner” and our commitment to civic equality.

We taxpayers are subsidizing segregation and bigotry–without realizing the promised improvement in academic outcomes.

 

How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.

Vouchers, Discrimination And Corruption

Indiana has the largest, most costly school voucher program in the country.

How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds have been diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.

Now we also find that the lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson has written the best summary of that problem.

The joke is that dead people vote in Chicago. Apparently they go to school in Indiana. Stephanie Wang, reporting for Chalkbeat Indiana, has an article about the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathway Academy which, among a number of other abuses, kept a dead kid on their claims for state money for two years after he died.

Five years after two students moved to Florida, they reappeared on enrollment records for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school.

And nearly every one of the more than 900 students kicked out of Indiana Virtual School and its sister school in the 2017-18 school year for being inactive were re-enrolled the next school year, included in per-pupil funding calculations that netted the two online schools more than $34 million in public dollars last year.

These were among the ways that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy allegedly inflated their enrollment to at least twice its actual size, according to the findings of a state examiner’s investigation released Monday.

As Doug points out, heads would roll if it was discovered that a public school was manipulating its Average Daily Membership (ADM).

The virtual school superintendent responded by reminding everyone that these weren’t great students and also freedom.

In a written response to the state education board, Clark did not address the enrollment discrepancies but defended the online schools for serving “last-chance students” who have dropped out of or been expelled from traditional public schools — even if they weren’t active.

He accused state education officials of trying “to remove educational choice and force students to remain in school environments in which success has evaded them and where hope has abandoned them.”

“The beacon of hope has just been doused,” Clark concluded.

Doug’s response to this asinine defense was a perfect bit of snark: “Also, I’d add that if you make public money for voucher schools contingent on providing actual services to actual students, then the terrorists win. Obviously.”

Initially, many people who favored vouchers truly believed that such programs would “rescue” poor children trapped in failing schools. (In true American style, it didn’t occur to most of them to advocate fixing those schools.) They pointed to better outcomes in private schools, conveniently overlooking sociological differences between families sending children to private schools and others. (Studies controlling for those differences found no statistically significant differences.)

However well-meaning those initial supporters were, the evidence is in: in addition to the consequences enumerated above, vouchers are yet another wedge between America’s tribes, separating children of different religions (and in many places, races, as their use increasingly re-segregates school populations) from each other.

In addition to providing academic instruction, public schools serve as a “street corner” for children from different backgrounds. Given residential segregation based on income, that street corner is admittedly imperfect, but it nevertheless fosters more civic integration than the religious institutions that separate the theologically acceptable from the “others.”

Let’s face the facts: vouchers were a (very clever) “work around” allowing tax dollars to flow to religious schools despite the Establishment Clause–part of the continuing fundamentalist assault on separation of church and state.

And they haven’t even improved children’s education.

 

 

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

The Unremitting Attacks On Public Education

The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.

Last September, The Guardian reported on an Arizona effort spearheaded by DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.

Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.

For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.

Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.

The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.

One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.

One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Save our Schools won. 

A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.

The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.

This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.

If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.