President Donald Trump visited a private religious school in Florida on March 2, 2017, signaling once again that his education agenda will focus on school choice.
Photo by Alex Brandon of the AP taken from report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The argument for privatization schemes like charter schools and vouchers is that public schools in many low-income neighborhoods are abhorrent failures. Worse yet, the poor families living there have no affordable education options and are trapped. The question is asked, “why don’t poor people have some of the same choices as wealthier people?”
A possible solution is proposed, “Instead of sending public dollars to ‘failing schools,’ vouchers could be given to parents so their children can attend private schools.” Another popular option is to use tax policy and monetary incentives to encourage privately operated charter schools. The claim is made that – because of market forces and reduction in both operating rules and oversight – charter schools will innovate and provide improved pedagogy. The traditional public schools which are encumbered by state regulations and teachers’ unions will learn from these charter school innovations and market forces will cause them to also improve.
Unfortunately, there are three base assumptions here that are wrong. While it is true that some schools have been so poorly resourced and politically damaged by both racism and corruption that they are an abomination, in general America’s public school system is amazingly great – not failing, great!
Secondly, voucher-fed private schools are not that good. Private schools that compare favorably with public schools are much more expensive than any proposed vouchers.
As for the charter school claims; they have not innovated, they have increase education costs and the lack of oversight has resulted in an endless stream of scandal. In addition, the improved pedagogy which has been touted in advertising is refuted by refereed studies.
President Trump proposed spending $20 billion supposedly by repurposing title I funds to promote “school choice.” That is a stunning number. It is equal to more than two-thirds of the spending on the Manhattan Project. The US spent about $1.9 billion on the atomic bomb development. That was estimated to be equivalent to $30 billion in 2013. Another estimate says $2 billion in 1945 dollars was equivalent to $26 billion in 2016. Mr. Trump is calling for a nearly Manhattan Project sized effort to privatize America’s public schools. Does he believe public schools in America are in that kind of crisis or is this just another feckless politician demagoging education for his own selfish purposes?
Mercedes Schneider’s book School Choice makes a powerful arguments for why “school choice” is not only an idea that is unsupported by evidence but will cause extensive damage to our world’s greatest democratic institution. She shared this quote from the longtime teachers’ union leader and one of the original supporters of charter schools, Albert Shankar.
“A pluralistic society cannot sustain a scheme in which the citizenry pays for a school but has no influence over how the school is run. … Public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interest of e pluribus unum. Charter schools and their like are definitely antithetical to this promise.”
Russ Walsh teaches college reading at Rider University and publishes the blog, “Russ on Reading.” This March he wrote “School Vouchers: Welfare for the Rich, the Racist, and the Religious Right.” That’s certainly a novel take on the “3-Rs” of education. In this piece, Mr. Walsh explains vouchers:
“What are vouchers exactly? School vouchers come in many forms and since the general public is typically opposed to voucher schemes, politicians who favor them have come up with a variety of Orwellian doublespeak names for them like Opportunity Scholarships, Education Choice Scholarships, or the Education Savings Accounts. Another way states have found to get around calling vouchers vouchers is the scholarship tax credit. These schemes allow individuals and corporations to direct their tax monies to private institutions who then use the money for scholarships for students.”
Trump and DeVos went to a Catholic School in Orlando to praise and encourage Florida’s use of scholarship tax credits which appear to run afoul of the first amendment to the United States constitution’s establishment clause. It redirects public dollars to religious schools which does entangle church and state. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State say voucher programs undermine religious liberty.
In Florida, the tax credit voucher is called Florida corporate tax credits. A Florida League of Women Voters report states, “In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that vouchers paid by the treasury were unconstitutional. Florida corporate tax credits (FTC) became the vehicle to fund what initially were private school scholarships for children from disadvantaged families.”
This month a Texas Superintendent of Schools, John Kuhn, informed the Association of Texas Professional Educators about vouchers:
“Three different research studies published recently have found that voucher programs harm student learning—including one study sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Fordham Institute, both proponents of vouchers. Students who use vouchers underperform their matched peers who stay in public schools.
“You heard me right. I’m not just saying that vouchers don’t help very much. I’m saying voucher programs result in students learning less than if the voucher programs didn’t exist. Giving a student a voucher to improve his education is like giving a struggling swimmer a boulder to help him swim. The Walton Foundation study said: ‘Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.’ A study of the voucher program in Louisiana found very negative results in both reading and math. Kids who started the voucher program at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Vouchers are so harmful to children that a Harvard professor called their negative effect ‘as large as any I’ve seen in the literature.’”
Evidence from Sweden, New Zealand, Chile and several American metropolitan areas has consistently shown that privatizing schools with vouchers not only does not improve education outcomes, it harms them. When the monies for voucher programs are removed from public education budgets, the opportunities for the 85% of our students attending public schools are reduced.
Privately Run Charter Schools
At the behest of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teacher’s union MGT of America studied the costs associated with charter schools in LA. MGT reported, “these data indicate that LAUSD has a nearly $600 million impact from independent charter schools.” Running dual school systems increases costs. Therefore, the evidence for benefit from charter schools needs to be clear and convincing.
The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado recently published a compilation of refereed studies under the title Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms. A paper by Miron and Urschel says of charter school studies, “For example, all of the California studies either found mixed or positive results, while four out of the five Michigan studies and three out of the four Ohio studies produced negative results.”
In Learning, Miron and Urschel also noted:
“A third factor that overshadows the body of evidence on school choice is the predominance of partisan researchers and activist organizations that carry out the research. Especially in the areas of home schooling, vouchers, and charter schools, the bulk of studies that find positive impacts in favor of school choice have been conducted by advocacy groups.”
Two consistent features of modern education governance are that politicians and business men who have power enforce their own particular biases even though lacking both educational experience and knowledge. The second feature is education policy is not based on refereed peer reviewed research by professionals.
For decades, John Walton and the Walton Family Foundation promoted vouchers as the ideal fix for what Walton saw as needing fixed. In a Washington Post article Jeff Bryant wrote:
“Fully inculcated with Friedman’s philosophies, and motivated by the myth of school failure spread by the Reagan administration, the Waltons were ready for their education revolution to begin.”
After a series of defeats trying to promote vouchers, the foundation transitioned the privatization agenda to advancing charter schools. Bryant continued:
“According to a pro-union website, another member of the Walton family, Carrie Walton Penner, sits on the board of the foundation connected to the prominent KIPP charter school chain—on which the Walton Family Foundation has lavished many millions in donations—and is also a member of the California Charter Schools Association. Carrie’s husband, Greg Penner, is a director of the Charter Growth Fund, a ‘non-profit venture capital fund’ investing in charter schools.”
Search “charter school investment” and at least two pages of paid ads for charter school investment funds will appear. In March 2015, the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-sponsored an event in Manhattan called “Bonds and Blackboards: Investing in Charter Schools.” In the Business Insider report on this event, reporter Abby Jackson wrote:
“Hedge funds and other private businesses are particularly interested in the growth and success of charter schools. The growth of charter networks around the US offer new revenue streams for investing, and the sector is quickly growing. Funding for charter schools is further incentivized by generous tax credits for investments to charter schools in underserved areas.”
An article by the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker states,
“As noted in a 1996 Detroit Metro Times article, while the DeVos’ ultimate aim was to abolish public education and steer public funds to parochial schools, they knew not to be blatant about that goal. Thus, they chose a vehicle that blurred the lines between public and private schools- a “gateway drug” to privatizing public education: charter schools.”
Here in California we have a plethora of billionaires and other wealthy people working to expand charter school penetration including; Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, Doris Fischer, Carrie Walton Penner and the list continues.
America’s Public Schools Rock
As I wrote in a 2014 post, the declaration that America’s public education system is failing has a long history. Diane Ravitch reported the following quote from Jim Arnold & Peter Smagorinsky on her blog.
“Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.” In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.”
By the middle of the 20th century, cities and villages throughout the USA had developed an impressive educational infrastructure. With the intent of giving every child in America the opportunity for 12 years of free education, this country was the world’s only country not using high stakes testing to deny the academic path to more than a third of its students. The physical infrastructure of our public schools was of high quality and schools were staffed with well-trained experienced educators.
This system that is the foundation – to the greatest economy in the world, the most Nobel Prize winners and democratic government – has passed the exam of life. It is clearly the best education system in the world. To diminish and undermine it is foolhardy. Arrogant greed-blinded people are trying to steal our legacy.