Public Education

Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.

PFAW

Right Wing Targets 'Moral Mondays' Organizer

Right-wing groups and media are waging a concerted attack on Rev. William Barber, organizer of this weekend’s “Moral March” in Raleigh, North Carolina.

North Carolina’s politics lurched to the far right after multimillionaire Art Pope poured money into a far-right takeover of the state government.  A tidal wave of horrible legislation last year attacked voting rights, public education, health care, and unemployment insurance -- and raising taxes on poor families to give tax breaks to a handful of the state’s wealthiest people. Basically, if you want to see what unfettered Tea Party governance looks like, look at North Carolina.

In response, a huge statewide coalition led by Barber, the president of the state NAACP, organized “Moral Mondays” protests to draw attention to the legislature’s extremism. State GOP officials initially dismissed the movement, with one legislator deriding “Moron Mondays” and others blaming the protests on “outside agitators.” But the protests grew to thousands, with more than 900 people, the vast majority of them from North Carolina, being arrested.

The progressive Forward Together coalition drew tens of thousands of people to Raleigh this weekend for a “Moral March,” which kicked off a year of organizing and voter engagement. This progressive mobilization has generated excitement among progressive activists nationally, and has made Barber a target of the right wing.

In recent weeks, Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren have invited Sen. Tim Scott, Allen West, and Star Parker – all right-wing African Americans – to attack Barber for comments he made suggesting  that Scott is a ventriloquist dummy for the Tea Party.

In the days leading up to Saturday’s march, the state’s Republican Chairman Claude Pope slammed Barber for using "inflammatory and offensive" rhetoric. And Tami Fitzgerald from the North Carolina Values Coalition snarked, “The so-called Moral March on Raleigh is anything but moral. It is spearheaded by groups that support abortion and homosexual marriage.” I am not aware that Fitzgerald has raised moral objections to right-wing state officials’ attacks on poor families’ access to health care.

At a press conference after the March, Tea Party activist David Webb, a Fox and Breitbart contributor, badgered Barber about whether he owed Scott and other black conservatives an apology. No apology was forthcoming. The unruffled Barber said his job and calling are “to speak the truth about public policies, policies that hurt millions of people.” 

Barber said his critique was based on policy, not personality. “While some people may choose to get caught up on a metaphor,” Barber said, “the real indignation and upsetness should be over the regressive agenda” and over policies that are causing “real-life suffering and death.”

If folk want to get upset, get upset over the denying of Medicaid expansion, get upset over voting to reject unemployment benefits for laid off workers who are Republican, who are Democrat, who are black, who are white. Get upset over reduced access to public education and funding of it….and get upset over the attacks to turn back voting rights that were won through blood, sweat and tears.”

 

The Problem with “School Choice” Week: What’s Behind the Bright Yellow Banner

Anti-government ideologues, privatization profiteers, and religious fundamentalists are eager to get their hands on public education dollars.
PFAW Foundation

The Problem with 'School Choice' Week: What's Behind the Bright Yellow Banner

“School choice” will be celebrated this week at thousands of events across the country, with speakers talking about empowered parents and educational excellence.  It will probably be a public relations bonanza for the “school choice” movement.  But here’s the problem: the bright yellow banner of National School Choice Week is designed to distract attention from the least appealing and most dangerous aspects of that movement -- anti-government ideologues, privatization profiteers, and religious fundamentalists eager to get their hands on public education dollars.

Let’s back up a bit.

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public school charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

If you believe that public education is an important democratic institution, and you think education policy should be aimed at giving every child the opportunity to attend a quality public school, these policies don’t all look alike. They don’t all have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability.

But the folks at National School Choice Week would like you not to think about that.  Here’s Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, in a January 2 column:

To individual parents – “school choice” is not just about charter schools, or private schools, or traditional public or magnet schools, or online learning and homeschooling. It’s about having a choice of all of these options, being able to make a choice, and selecting the learning environments that are right for their individual children. When school choice organizations work together, the collective messaging of these partnerships and this broad, familiar definition of school choice resonates with families.

He acknowledges that people have different ideas about what school choice means: “It goes without saying that a charter school association and a private school choice group might not agree on every policy issue, or that a homeschooling organization and a magnet school consortium will not always find common ground,” he says, but we can all come together on “the basics.”

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans  like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Others view the huge amount of money we collectively spend on educating children as a source of cash. One of the sponsors of National School Choice Week is K12, a member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” one “that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”  In September 2013, a hedge fund manager betting that the company’s model was unsustainable said that “K 12’s aggressive student recruitment has led to dismal academic results by students and sky-high dropout rates, in some cases more than 50% annually.” And yet Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis was paid more than $9.5 million last year; Morningstar reports that K12’s compensation to top executives went from 8.89 million in 2011 to 10.89 million in 2012 to 21.37 million in 2013. According to Sourcewatch, $730.0 million of the $848.2 million K12 earned last year came from its “managed public schools” – in other words, taxpayers.

For-profit schools that are doing a lousy job can be protected by the huge amounts of money they spend lobbying in state legislatures. A November 2011 investigation by Lee Fang for The Nation reported that White Hat Management, which runs both traditional and virtual charter schools, had become Ohio’s second-largest GOP donor; the company’s success rate under No Child Left Behind was 2 percent, compared to 54.9% for traditional schools and 30 percent for “virtual schools” run by nonprofits.

Publicly funded vouchers to pay for private schools have been rejected each time they have come before voters, and there is scant evidence that the voucher programs that are operational produce better academic outcomes.  But they are still a cherished goal of anti-government ideologues and operators of for-profit and religious schools.  One of the biggest “school choice” advocates among the country’s governors is Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has embarked on a grand privatization plan grounded in school vouchers, many of which have been used to send students to religious schools with questionable curricula and substandard academic achievement.  Data released by the state in November indicated that almost half of the vouchers were being used at schools that scored a D or F on the state’s rating scale.

There are unquestionably well-intentioned people in the education reform movement, some of whom will be participating in National School Choice Week activities. There are people of all political persuasions eager to find ways to give students a better education, and that includes teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively dismissed as “the blob” by some “reformers.”

People of good faith can and do disagree about the best way to strengthen teaching, hold schools accountable, reduce the devastating impact of poverty, and more.  But people who are genuinely seeking ways to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations who see public education as something to be dismantled, and with companies whose bottom line is measured not in student achievement but in the profit margins demanded by their investors.

New Poll Shows Overwhelming Opposition to Private School Vouchers

The annual PDK/Gallup poll records the highest level of opposition to private school vouchers in the survey's history.
PFAW

Pennsylvania’s Tea Party Governor at War with Public Schools

The Philadelphia school system, which is under state control, is facing a catastrophic opening...
PFAW

Tony Perkins' Scary Back-to-School Message

The fear-mongering in the Family Research Council’s latest mailing starts on the envelope:  “Beginning THIS MONTH…they don’t want any American child to escape. Read how we can STOP them.”

“They” turns out to be “government-run schools” and the “radical” teachers that infest them.

If a foreign enemy had plotted to infiltrate America, I’m not sure an army of undercover subversives could have done more damage than our government-run schools….

Leftists don’t want a single American child to escape their thought control.  And they are crowding out true education.

Of course, Perkins has a skewed idea about what a “true education” includes. He complains that America used to be the tops in science – after all we put a man on the moon. But not any more:

Today’s science classes often feature big-government political propaganda, taking time and focus away from true science. Not to mention attacks on the Bible and arrogant censoring of any theories like intelligent design that challenge their Darwinism.

Yes, nothing will boost American students’ science scores faster than a little the-universe-is-6000-years-old Creationism. Perkins doesn’t say exactly what big-government propaganda he’s talking about. Evolution? Astronomy? Climate change?

Even worse, says Perkins, “the federal government has endorsed and sponsored an ‘anti-bullying program’ created and run by Dan Savage, a radical homosexual activist…” Perkins thinks sex education is all about promoting promiscuity and homosexual behavior. “This obsession with liberal sex ‘education’ shows how the minds and souls of our young people are being deliberately sabotaged.”

Accompanying Perkins’ letter is a “Protect America’s Children Survey” which asks whether their local schools are experiencing a range of problems, including “Positive portrayals of homosexuality or negative portrayals of those who don’t affirm homosexuality,” “Not enough teaching of the Christian roots of America,” “Absence of presentation of intelligent design theory,” and “Not enough teaching on the virtues of limited government and free enterprise.”

There is hope, says Perkins, bragging that he was able to “assist” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in passing “one of the most family-friendly school choice laws in America.” Jindal’s privatization scheme has resulted in public money being diverted into often  unaccountable schools wasting taxpayer dollars and teaching Religious Right curricula – no wonder Perkins loves it. 

'Choice' School Accountability in the Eye of the Beholder – or Big Donor

On the very same day that the Washington Post reported on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul’s call for more school vouchers and expanded charter programs, the Associated Press exposed a frantic behind-the-scenes operation in Indiana to raise the grade given to a charter school run by a major Republican donor. As Rick Perry might say, “oops.”

Paul’s call to expand vouchers and other “school choice” programs is not surprising.  Right-wing political strategists have invested huge sums in recent decades to undermine public support for public schools as a means of outsourcing public education dollars into private hands. Privatizing public education is practically an article of faith in today’s Republican Party and it has been a major project of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

What should be more surprising, but isn’t, is Paul’s seeming lack of concern for accountability in the use of tax dollars. The Post reports that Paul “shrugged off” documented quality control problems in DC’s voucher system and “dismissed” recent research showing that charters, while improving, are still not outperforming traditional public schools. Pushing for expansion in the face of dubious evidence is standard operating procedure for education privatizers.

Many advocates for expanded voucher and charter programs say the problem is that public schools aren’t held accountable for their results, but they resist applying the same kind of accountability to “choice” schools. In Indiana, as the Associated Press reports, former state school superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff “frantically” overhauled his much-ballyhooed “A-F” grading system last year when it turned out that Christel House, a charter school run by a major GOP donor, would receive a “C.”

"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive….

Though Indiana had had a school ranking system since 1999, Bennett switched to the A-F system and made it a signature item of his education agenda, raising the stakes for schools statewide.

Bennett consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he secured support for the measure from business groups and lawmakers, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, alerted Bennett on Sept 13 that the Christel House Academy had scored a 2.9, or a "C."

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to Neal.

Neal fired back a few minutes later, "Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved."

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a "C'' to an "A," including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high "B'' look like an "A'' and changing the grade just for Christel House.

It's not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan's grade jumping twice….

"I am more than a little miffed about this," Bennett wrote. "I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months."

Bennett told AP that his frustration was with a flawed grading formula and denied that the staff’s frantic changes were designed to give DeHaan’s school an A. But, the AP report says, “the emails clearly show Bennett's staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.”

Bennett is now the state education commissioner in Florida, where advocates for privatization of public education have made a huge push in recent years.  

UPDATE: In the wake of news coverage of the school-grading scandal in Indiana, Bennett resigned as Florida's education commissioner on August 1, just a day after Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Bennett was doing a "great job." 

Bradlee Dean: Public Schools Evil, Obama Emulating Mao

Right-wing rock musician and radio host Bradlee Dean, a Michele Bachmann ally, was part of a panel on the Millennial generation at Liberty Counsel’s recent Awakening conference. Dean’s You Can Run But You Can’t Hide ministry, designated an anti-gay hate group last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, works to bring Dean’s right-wing-values presentations into public schools.

Dean – who has suggested that the federal government was behind the shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora Springs, and Columbine, along with the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11 – not surprisingly pushed conspiracy theories about public education, including the notion that the rigorous International Baccalaureate program is part of a global scheme to disarm Americans and indoctrinate students in a homosexual agenda.

During the Awakening panel, Dean ranted that public school students know nothing about the Constitution and said that Christian parents have no excuse for having their children in public schools. He cited the Common Core, a curriculum standard developed by state education officials, as evidence that President Obama is acting like Mao Tse-Tung. He said Supreme Court rulings on church-state issues had opened the door to Satanism.   Some excerpts:

“In 1962, said we don’t want prayer, and we don’t want the Ten Commandments in 1980, guess what you did, you just opened the door to Satanism, and call it for what it is....

You can’t justify having your kid in a public school. You can’t. You can’t do it. [Other panelist: “Unless you hate ‘em”]. Unless you hate ‘em, that’s exactly right. No, guys, just hang on, there’s nothing funny about this. Here, let me tell you this, this is how funny it is, guys.  In public schools right now they’re teaching your kids, for those that didn’t know, International Baccalaureate. For those that didn’t know, it started in 1968 under a global educational scheme called International Baccalaureate. They’re teaching your kids to disarm, they’re teaching your kids to accept homosexuality, homosexual marriage, which has never been in the history of mankind. By the way, gay marriage and homosexuality? It’s only there to take away your sovereignty.  So for those that want to sit there and play games with the homosexual community, let me tell you something: they ain’t playing….

They’re teaching No Child Left Behind. Now they’re teaching something called Common Core. Folks, this president is emulating dictators. Do you not understand that he is not playing games? If you look at Mao Tse-tung, this boy is emulating Mao Tse-tung to a T. You know what Mao Tse-tung did, he went to the younger generation, he overthrew the Republic of China to implement what? Democracy. Who is the last president that actually acknowledged that we were a republic? Reagan. Every president since has continuously inundated the next generation with the fact that we are a democracy. That is dangerous, guys.”

Dean, who last year was ordered to pay attorney fees in an unsuccessful-to-date $50 million lawsuit against MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and the Minnesota Independent’s Andy Birkey, earlier this year threatened a defamation suit against Wonkette.

Right-Wing Voucher Push Undermines Public Education & Constitution

Religious Right leaders and anti-government ideologues have shared a decades-long dream: to dismantle public education through a system of vouchers that would divert taxpayer funds out of public schools and into religious schools and other private academies.  For some, privatizing education is primarily a religious or ideological project. For others, the billions of dollars that flow through public schools is a tempting source of cash. For some it’s both.  Whatever the incentive, voucher proponents are finding success.  A renewed push for the creation and expansion of voucher and voucher-like schemes is contributing to a disturbing rise in public education dollars being diverted to schools that face little to no oversight or public accountability and teach religious dogma at the expense of science.

Most recently, on February 28, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Douglas County’s voucher program – labeled a “Choice Scholarship Program” in accord with the messaging tactics of Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz – does not violate the state Constitution’s explicit prohibitions against public funding for religious education, even though 18 of the county’s 23 “private partner” schools are religious.  As reported by the Associated Press, dissenting Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote, "In my view,[the Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command." 

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief said “Public education funds should be used to help improve our public schools, not to promote religion in violation of the state constitution.”  Unfortunately, the Colorado case is not the first in which courts have been willing to go along with voucher plans.  In 2011, in a 5-4 ruling, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority allowed an Arizona tax-credit / voucher program to stand while weakening the ability of citizens to challenge programs that divert public funds for religious purposes.

State legislators and their corporate backers in the American Legislative Exchange Council have pushed similar voucher-like tax breaks in other states, often employing the language of “choice” and “options” to divert public attention from the intent and effect of these schemes.  After conservative victories in state elections in 2010, governors and legislators in many states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida, pushed to create or expand programs that divert public education dollars into religious schools and other private academies.

Among the most aggressive is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is basically pushing an effort to privatize public education in his state.  He has instituted a massive voucher program grounded in the “model legislation” pushed by ALEC, which honored Jindal in 2011 with its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.  Think Progress notes that Jindal’s plan will divert huge sums from public schools:  “Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state’s public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented. “

Ed Kilgore noted last summer in Washington Monthly:

In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by “the market.” So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that’s okay by Bobby.

Lack of accountability is a real concern.  While proponents of voucher programs paint a picture of a poor student being given a chance to attend an elite private academy, most of those schools have few openings, meaning that the “choice” offered to many students and parents is something far different, including fly-by-night schools with little track record of their own.  According to the Louisiana Budget Project,

Louisiana requires almost no accountability from voucher schools....While voucher students are required to take the same assessment tests as public school students, there are no penalties for private schools if they fail to measure up to their public counterparts. In fact, Gov. Jindal vetoed language in a 2011 appropriations bill that would have removed participating schools if their students’ scores lagged those in the lowest performing schools in the Recovery School District, which incorporates most New Orleans public schools.

So if public schools have lousy test scores, they're failures and their students all get vouchers. But if the private schools have lousy test scores, then....nothing. Presumably the magic of the free market will fix them up.

In June 2011, an investigation by Miami New Times found a breathtaking lack of oversight and accountability in Florida’s voucher program for disabled students, likening it to “a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.”

In addition to defunding public schools at the expense of unaccountable private schools, voucher programs end up using tax dollars to promote sectarian religious education and proselytizing. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes Catholic schools as central to the church’s “New Evangelization.”   And in Louisiana and elsewhere, tax dollars are being used to support schools that teach young-earth creationism, revisionist U.S. history published by fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and other religious dogma applied to civics, politics, and literature. 

The Agenda Behind the Voucher Agenda

During “National School Choice Week,” which ran from January 27 to February 3, the Heritage Foundation published a special report, “Choosing to Succeed,” which included a call for abandoning the “myth” and “relic” of the common school.  In January, Americans for Prosperity published a report blaming the federal government for the failure of education reform and promoting vouchers and voucher-like tax schemes, such as Pennsylvania’s “Education Improvement Tax Credit.” 

On February 5, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he argued that education funds should follow students whether they “choose” public, private, or charter schools. He asserted, “One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable.”  It is important to understand that targeted voucher programs that allow students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools to attend private schools that will accept them are not the ultimate goal of school privatizers. They are a tactical means to a much larger strategic end, which is the end of public education altogether, as pushed by David Koch in his run for the White House in 1980. As Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of the movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

In a May 2011 article, researcher Rachel Tabachnik reviewed the history and financing of the school privatization movement. Its financial backers have been pouring millions of dollars into state politics for the past decade in order to build legislatures more to their liking.  Right-wing donors such as Betsy DeVos and the Walton Foundation funnel money through groups with media-friendly names like All Children Matter, its successor the American Federation for Children, and AFC-affiliated state-level political action committees like Students First, which raised more than $6 million for the 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania.

“Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling,” wrote Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in 1997. “In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Heartland has received significant funding from right-wing foundations over the years, including the Charles Koch Foundation.

Another major ideological target is public employee unions, and teachers unions in particular.  A 2011 New York Times story about FreedomWorks’ lobbying for a Pennsylvania voucher program noted, “FreedomWorks is pushing anti-union legislation in several states, and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.”

School vouchers are just one part of the immensely complicated arena of education policy.  A wide array of strategies and policy proposals is often confusingly lumped together under the banner of “education reform” or “school choice,” terms that can encompass everything from curricula, student testing and teacher evaluation, charter and cyber-charter schools and more.  Some strategies may identify effective reforms that can be replicated and used to strengthen public schools and improve educational opportunity.  Others, like vouchers, are designed to weaken or dismantle public education altogether.

As parents, educators, and activists evaluate various education reform proposals, it is worth keeping in mind the question posed  by Stan Karp, in the Spring 2011 edition of Rethinking Schools, when he said that what is ultimately at stake in the school reform debate is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed – however imperfectly – by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about right-wing efforts to undermine public education, often in the name of education reform.

See also: Predatory Privatization, a 2012 Right Wing Watch In Focus report; and  Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education, a 2003 report from People For the American Way Foundation.

 

 

Federal education vouchers funding creationism curricula

Federally funded private school voucher and tax credit programs are more numerous than ever. Moreover, studies show that the curricula in many of these programs have included the teaching of creationism.
PFAW

The Perils of Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight.  People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.

But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:

  • "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"
  • "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."  
  • "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"
  • "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"
  • "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.

But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.

Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?

The Perils of Teaching About the Bible in Public Schools

Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight.  People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.

But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:

  • "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"
  • "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."  
  • "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"
  • "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"
  • "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.

But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.

Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?

PFAW Foundation

Issue #267,233 Romney Doesn't Get: Education

Mitt Romney took the stage at NBC's Education Nation to double down on his ridiculous past remarks that class size is "irrelevant" and "didn't make a difference." In light of Romney's remarks, American Bridge 21st Century launched ClassSizeMatters.com, featuring a great video and research revealing Romney's disastrous record on education.

From ClassSizeMatters.com:

Mitt Romney has said that "the effort to reduce classroom size may actually hurt education more than it helps." As governor, he proposed cutting $18 million in funding for class size reduction in Massachusetts. Yet when it came time to choose a school for his children, the Romneys chose an elite private school with an average class size of eleven students.

Mitt Romney wants small class sizes for his family -- but not for yours.

Learn more at http://classsizematters.com/learn-more/

 

PFAW

Public Schools Denounced at Tea Party Rally in Tampa, Blamed for Election of Barack Obama

Conservative talk show host Neal Boortz, speaking at yesterday’s Unity Rally 2012 in Tampa ahead of the Republican National Convention, denounced public schools as “government schools” that are “forced upon us.” Boortz blamed “100 years of government education” for bringing America “to the point that a man like Barack Obama could be sworn in as president of the United States.”

Boortz directed the crowd to change the way they speak about public schools – calling them “government schools” instead. He also called on the audience to “preach school choice,” by which meant efforts to defund public schools and provide taxpayer dollars for religious and private schools and homeschooling.

A number of public officials spoke at the rally, including Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Michele Bachmann. Kleefisch and Chaffetz both followed Boortz but neither stood up for public schools. One has to wonder if they, like Boortz, also hate public education:
 
Let me change your language on two things. […]
 
They are not public schools, they are government schools. They are owned by, staffed by, operated by and forced upon by the government.
 
And, ladies and gentlemen, it is 100 years of government education that led us to the point that a man like Barack Obama could be sworn in as president of the United States.
 
So, wherever you are, preach school choice.

 

Santorum Knocks Public Schools, But Sticks Taxpayers for Bill for Homeschooling

Rick Santorum raised eyebrows last week for making claims that he has been making for years, including his criticism of public schools. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Santorum called public schools “anachronistic” and compared them to factories:

In his remarks to the Ohio Christian Alliance, however, Santorum went further, seeming to attack the very idea of public education.

In the nation’s past, he said, “Most presidents homeschooled their children in the White House.…

Parents educated their children because it was their responsibility.”

“Yes, the government can help,” he continued, “but the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic.”

He said it is an artifact of the Industrial Revolution, “when people came off the farms where they did homeschool or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories … called public schools.”

While industry has evolved, public schools remain stuck in the factory era, he said, “back in the age of Henry Ford. You get what we give you. One color, two models. It wouldn’t work for Henry Ford today, and it won’t work for America today.

Santorum has long opposed public education and in his 2005 book It Takes a Family marveled how “so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools.” In fact, public schools are consistently in the crosshairs of Religious Right activists, as seen in this anti-public education film made by Truth in Action Ministries:

While Santorum is an unapologetic opponent of public schools, or as he calls them, “government-run schools,” he has no problem making taxpayers cover the tab for his homeschooling. While a U.S. Senator, Santorum moved his family to Virginia but still stuck Pennsylvania taxpayers with the bill for his decision to have his children attend a cyber-school:

The Republican senator owns a home in Penn Hills, but lives in Leesburg, Va.

Penn Hills School District is paying $38,000 this year for five Santorum children to attend Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School based in Midland, Beaver County. The district has paid an additional $62,000 for his children to attend the school since 2001.



Penn Hills School District, which is required by state law to pay cyber charter tuition costs for students living in the district, is investigating whether Santorum is actually a resident.

A statement issued by Santorum's press office on Tuesday (yesterday) stated he had been in contact with the school district officials and is awaiting questions from them that he will answer to clarify his residency and the education of his children.



Santorum and his wife, Karen Garver Santorum, have owned the house at 111 Stephens Lane since 1997. They pay about $2,000 annually in property taxes to the district.

But records at the Allegheny County Election Office also show that the couple are not the only people claiming the home as their residence.

Bart and Alyssa DeLuca, both 25, are registered voters listed for the same address. They are not related to Penn Hills Mayor Anthony DeLuca or his father, state Rep. Tony DeLuca.

Alyssa, Karen Garver Santorum's niece, registered as a voter living at the Santorum house in September 2000. Then Bart registered with the election office in June 2001 by using the same address.

Young People for the American DREAM

Today, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow access to affordable postsecondary education, opportunities for military service and potentially a path to full citizenship to thousands of qualified young students striving for a better future.

African American Ministers Support the DREAM Act

Today, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow access to affordable postsecondary education, opportunities for military service and potentially a path to full citizenship to thousands of qualified young students striving for a better future.

Students Should Get Another Chance at the DREAM

Today, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow access to affordable postsecondary education, opportunities for military service and potentially a path to full citizenship to thousands of qualified young students striving for a better future.

David Barton’s Christian Nation: Sham ‘Historian’ Hits the Big Time in Tea Party America

Who is David Barton? A new PFAW report explores the growing influence of the fast-talking, self-promoting, self-taught , self-proclaimed “historian” who is systematically misinforming millions of Americans about U.S. History and the Constitution – and increasingly influencing prominent Republican decision-makers.
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