Tuesday :: Aug 17, 2004

Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Far Right

by soccerdad

Charter schools and vouchers have been a cornerstone of Bush's No Child Left Behind Initiative. There has been some bad news for Bush on this front the past few days. I have had very mixed feelings about this issue which I'll go into below.

The NYT ran an article today, Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal, which describes the lack of improvement in 4th graders in charter schools compared to traditional schools in the areas of reading and math. Charter school students actually lagged behind as much as a half year. There were attempts to control for ethnicity and income in the statistical analysis and the difference was still there.

I heard a segment on NPR tonight about this issue tonight and the pro-charter school person made a couple of points. First most charter schools have only been in existence for 2-3 years and second, calling yourself a charter school doesn't by itself make it better. I tend to agree with these points, I think they are reasonable. But I'm still left with questions. How much time to give them? What happens if the student is in the charter school for their entire academic career, how are they prepared at the end? Are standardized tests the only way in which to judge charter schools? Does the idea of having more input into the education of your child outweigh a small difference in one aspect of performance? In my mind the jury is out on this. Other points made on the NPR program was that the charter school actually got less money than the traditional school. No explanation was given.

The article cited that there have been 80 charter schools, 60 in California, closed because of financial irregularities of the private companies running them. Education is something that should not be privatized.

Some of the issues in setting up charter schools and assessing their progress is examined in this RAND study.

An interesting aside, the data for Charter school performance was actually buried in a gigantic report and not announced. It was "discovered" by researchers for the national teachers association.

On Monday, Florida's voucher law was declared unconstitutional by a state appeals court because it allowed students to attend religious schools at the taxpayer's expense.

Under the 1999 law, the centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education policies, students attending public schools that earn failing grades two years out of four are eligible for vouchers to help them attend private schools, religious or otherwise.

So there is a separation of church and state issue here. The other complaint that is often heard about private schools is that they are unregulated and therefore, there's no guarantee that the education will be any better. Teachers are not necessarily certified and sometimes the schools are not independently assessed. The question asked by the anti-voucherpeople is: why should tax payer dollars go to possibly bad schools. The counter would be that shouldn't the parents have some choice?

To me the big issue is taxpayer money going to religious schools. My school district although supposedly one of the better in the state was not doing the job for my son. So I took him out and put him in a Catholic HS at my expense. But the problem is not everyone has the resources to do that. Without vouchers, you're stuck with the under performing school system where you live. So I can understand the positive part of a voucher system. One could also argue that if you are in a failing school you are paying taxes for a system thats broken and if you decide to pull your kid why should you have to, in essence, pay twice for education if you go private even if it is a religious school.

What raises the red flag for me was some of the pronouncements of the religious right on public education. By now I have become very suspicious of any public policy put forth by this administration and look to see if there is a tie-in to the religious right. This sometimes reveals what some of the ulterior motives might be. In addition, I am concerned about the privatization of education. I'm not convinced that it is amenable to the capitalist driving force of profit.

People for the American Way has a report on vouchers.

A network of Religious Right groups, free-market economists, ultraconservative columnists and others are using vouchers as a vehicle to achieve their ultimate goal of privatizing education. Their embrace of vouchers reflects their view that to be successful, privatization must be achieved incrementally. The long-term goal is to make all schooling an activity supplied by private sources: for-profit management companies, religious organizations and home schools.

The PFAW report raises a lot of important issues. The idea the privatization can deliver a better product and a cheaper cost, in my opinion, does not apply to situations in which the true goal of the enterprise is not profit, e.g. education and medicine. We see how well the private medical enterprise is controlling costs. Unlike refrigerators, there may be no true competition in the market. Putting money into privatization will take money away from public schools which will cause further decline.

I've heard this free market crap with cable TV, less regulation = more competition and better service. Well no company is going to go into a town and string a second fiberoptic system if they are unsure of the payoff. So all I've gotten is a higher cable bill. But I digress.

Now what about the religious right. Well here's a couple of quotes to consider.

"The public education movement has also been an anti-Christian movement...We can change education in America if you put Christian principles in and Christian pedagogy in. In three years, you would totally revolutionize education in America."
--Pat Robertson,"The 700 Club," September 27, 1993.

"The state is steadily attempting to do something that a few states other than the Soviets and the Nazis have attempted to do, namely, to take the children away from the parents and educate them in a philosophy that is amoral, anti-Christian and humanistic and to show them a collectivist philosophy that will ultimately lead to Marxism, socialism, and a communistic type of ideology. Satan has established certain strongholds...He has gone after education and has been very successful in capturing it. Abolish the public schools. You know they're just getting so bad. We need private schools. We need choice."
--Pat Robertson

A second report by PFAW goes into further detail about the goals of the religous right.

Best to read what various religious right people have said in their own words.

Years ago Jerry Falwell said, "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, there won't be any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them." This spirit still persists in Religious Right leaders like Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who has supported a growing movement to convince Christian parents to pull their children out of public schools altogether. In recent years, two other Religious Right leaders, Robert Simonds of Citizens for Excellence in Education and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, have promoted initiatives to encourage all Christian parents to withdraw their students (and their support) from public schools nationwide. Politicians like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) - who proudly touts that he has "been calling for an end to the government monopoly school system" for over 20 years - and radio personalities like Dr. Laura Schlessinger have also played high-profile roles in this movement. In her April 9, 2002 broadcast, Dr. Laura said, "I stand with Dr. James Dobson. Take your kids out of public schools."

The other tact that the religious right has taken is to attack what is taught in the public schools, particuarly sex education, creationism/intelligent design, and anti-gay issues.

There are real problems with public education especially in inner cities. These require real innovative solutions not the destruction of public education. I think that those who want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" many times have a hidden agenda.

Maybe its not an accident that the "No child left behind" initiative is actually underfunded as are many of the other federal education mandates. It may be an attempt to starve the beast.

Public education is a cornerstone of America and it needs to be improved for everyone. I'm not happy about the"market approach" of increased standardized testing and its effect on overall education but thats a rant for another day

soccerdad :: 4:54 PM :: Comments (21) :: Digg It!