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“Privatizing Education: The GOP Sees School Vouchers As A Political Panacea

A few months ago, following a lengthy “autopsy,” the Republican National Committee unveiled a lengthy blueprint for the party’s recovery, and though there wasn’t much in the way of policy prescriptions, there was one issue the document mentioned three times: “school choice.”

“School choice,” a poll-test euphemism for private school vouchers, is generally characterized by GOP leaders as a way for Republicans to reach out to minority communities, position themselves as caring about domestic policy, and weaken labor unions, all at the same time. According to the Washington Times, the party is apparently taking the idea quite seriously.

A Republican Party still reeling from the November elections is hoping that advocating for school choice can help the GOP recapture moderate voters, arguing that the issue provides a natural link between their limited-government philosophy and the average voter’s desire for good local schools.

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican speaking to grass-roots activists in Concord last week, said the party can bolster its national image by making school choice — giving parents the ability and the funds to choose between competing public and private schools for their children — a more prominent part of its message.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal hit a similar note two weeks earlier, saying at a fundraiser in Manchester that the issue is a political winner because it saves money and produces better results.

The policy is also being touted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), among others.

I can appreciate the appeal among Republican policymakers, who generally don’t have much of a policy agenda to speak of. By pushing vouchers, GOP officials and candidates get to pander to social conservatives and satisfy the party’s libertarian wing, all while infuriating teachers’ unions. That the idea ostensibly gives Republicans a “compassionate conservative” veneer is gravy.

So why haven’t we heard more about this lately? Largely because vouchers aren’t the political panacea the GOP has been waiting for.

For one thing, there are serious constitutional concerns, as Jindal was recently reminded when his state Supreme Court scrapped his in-state voucher scheme.

Indeed, as we discussed last year, all problems that have plagued vouchers for years haven’t gone away — if you’re familiar with the larger debate, you’ll recall serious concerns over public funding of religion; leaving behind students in sub-par schools; and giving tax dollars to unaccountable private operations, many of which have little to no standards for quality education.

What’s more, there’s very little evidence that vouchers actually help students in any measurable way, despite many years of research.

And while we’re at it, let’s also note that Republicans are convinced this is a political winner for them, but there’s no evidence to support that, either — vouchers have polled poorly for many years; they’ve failed repeatedly when put on statewide ballots; and though Mitt Romney endorsed vouchers last year, he was generally afraid to talk about his position, probably because he didn’t want to deal with the political opposition.

The fact remains that conservatives have talked about vouchers and privatizing education for several decades now, and it’s never been a political winner for the right. There’s no reason to believe this new push will be any more successful than the previous ones.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 30, 2013

June 1, 2013 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A No Good, Very Bad Year”: Louisiana Supreme Court Strikes Down Bobby Jindal’s Voucher Plan

This just isn’t Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) year. First his plan to end state hospice care was deemed so unpopular, he had to back down. Then his regressive tax plan, which would have eliminated state income taxes altogether, was rejected by his own allies.

And now his school voucher scheme has been rejected by state courts, too.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that the current method of funding the statewide school voucher program is unconstitutional. Act 2, part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 package of education reforms, diverts money from each student’s per-pupil allocation to cover the cost of private or parochial school tuition. The act authorizes both the Louisiana Scholarship Program and the new Course Choice program.

The vote was 6-1, with Justice Greg Guidry dissenting. The plaintiffs in the case include the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The ruling states that the per-pupil allocation, called the minimum foundation program or MFP, must go to public schools. Justice John Weimer writes, “The state funds approved through the unique MFP process cannot be diverted to nonpublic schools or other nonpublic course providers according to the clear, specific and unambiguous language of the constitution.”

Jindal’s voucher policy has been plagued by a series of problems, including directing public funds to “schools” with truly bizarre lesson plans, and financing religious ministries led by some, shall we say, eccentric pastors.

But in the end, Jindal just couldn’t get around the fact that the state constitution won’t allow him to divert public education funds to private entities.

It’s all part of the governor’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 7, 2013

May 9, 2013 Posted by | Education Reform | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Schools In The Crosshairs”: Parent-Trigger Laws Effort Has Become A Stealth Means To Privatize Public Schools

When her dyslexic second-grader landed in a failing public elementary school in Pittsburgh, single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick spotted trouble right away. Her daughter’s teacher spent class time shopping online for clothes while the kids bullied one another. Though other teachers wanted to do right by the kids, their union wouldn’t allow it; teachers were forbidden to offer any extra help to the students outside of class, and because their pay was based on seniority, some of the worst made the most. So despite working two jobs, Fitzpatrick somehow found the time to persuade other parents to sign a petition to turn the school into a nonunion charter. Most teachers joined the effort, perfectly content to give up their union protections. At the new charter school, magic happened. The kids began to get a proper education. Fitzpatrick’s daughter learned to read almost immediately.

It’s an inspiring tale. It’s also fiction—the plot of Won’t Back Down, a film released this fall starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the supermom and Viola Davis as a frustrated teacher who becomes her ally. Like most people, you probably steered clear of this critically panned box-office flop. If so, you didn’t miss much—except a revealing glimpse into the Hollywood-style fantasies of education reformers who believe they have found a new panacea for saving public education: parent-trigger laws.

These laws sound appealingly straightforward. If enough parents sign a petition, they can get their children’s failing school shut down or converted into a charter. Seven states have passed a parent trigger over the last two years; more will likely follow suit next year. These laws are designed to make public education increasingly look like the free marketplace of parental “choice” that reformers long to see. The idea has powerful backers, including conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—best known for “stand your ground” self-defense laws—and the Heartland Institute, famous for challenging climate science. Walden Media, which produced Won’t Back Down and funded the charter—school documentary Waiting for Superman, is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ALEC supporter and prominent Tea Party funder.

Parent trigger is not solely a right-wing cause. Democratic legislatures in Connecticut and California have passed these laws, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has unanimously endorsed them, and 70 percent of Americans view them favorably. The broad support is no surprise. If parents organize to make radical changes to a failing school, who would want to stop them? But many who back parent-trigger laws don’t realize that the effort has become a stealth means to privatize public schools. Heartland, which owns the website theparenttrigger.com, has crafted model legislation for trigger laws that apply to all schools—not just those that are failing. That might be a logical, if drastic, response if public schools were mired in the deep “crisis” that education reformers constantly cite. But they’re not: Many achievement gaps have narrowed substantially, test scores have risen, and high-school completion rates are at all-time highs.

Won’t Back Down, like the movement it champions, begins from the assumption that public schools are a hopeless mess. The complicated challenges that public educators grapple with—severe budget cuts, for instance, or health problems that make learning a particular challenge for low-income kids—are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, parents are exempted from responsibility. Jamie Fitzpatrick never volunteers to help out at the school. She doesn’t go to PTA meetings. She never even asks about her daughter’s homework. Gyllenhaal’s character is not so much a parent as an unhappy customer demanding a better school.

Anyone who believes in the school-reform fairy tale of Won’t Back Down should be required to watch another film released this fall to much less fanfare. This one doesn’t feature an Academy Award winner or a soundtrack of No. 1 hits. Instead, Brooklyn Castle chronicles a messy reality—that of Intermediate School 318, a Brooklyn middle school where 70 percent of the kids live below the poverty line, and where funding cuts are threatening the after-school activities that are key to getting many of them engaged. That includes the school’s chess team, which is, improbably, among the best in the country.

In most respects, I.S. 318 is ordinary. It’s not a magnet school or a charter, but it’s also not failing. The kids featured in Brooklyn Castle have real problems: They struggle with ADHD, asthma, and hunger, and many must work after school to help their parents make ends meet. Teachers and administrators encourage the students, helping to set goals for each one. When after-school programs are endangered, the parents rally, launching a letter–writing campaign to state officials and organizing a walkathon to raise money. I.S. 318, like most public schools, succeeds because the community invests in it, without expecting perfection.

“I think this is a good thing for kids to be exposed to—the idea that truth isn’t quite so simple as right and wrong,” I.S. 318 teacher and chess-team coach Elizabeth Vicary says. “The answers aren’t really clear to anybody.” She’s talking about chess. She could just as well be talking about our entire approach to education. The quest for easy fixes is seductive. But the more we look for Hollywood-style magic bullets, the less we focus on what makes public schools work.

 

By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 30, 2012

December 1, 2012 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Selective Accountability”: Louisiana Gives Us A Taste Of Mitt Romney’s Education Policy

Ed Kilgore has been sounding the alarms over Mitt Romney’s education proposals for a couple of months now, and I keep meaning — but somehow forgetting — to link to his posts about this. It’s probably all part of my love-hate relationship with education policy in general. But today he’s got another post up on the subject, so let’s take a look. He’s riffing on a TPM piece about the kudzu-like growth of Bobby Jindal’s voucher program in Louisiana:

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. 

Does that last sentence sound a wee bit unfair? Well, here’s a Reuters report from a few weeks ago about where kids with vouchers are actually likely to end up:

The top schools [] have just a handful of slots open….Far more openings are available at smaller, less prestigious religious schools, including some that are just a few years old and others that have struggled to attract tuition-paying students.

The school willing to accept the most voucher students — 314 — is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

….At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains “what God made” on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution. “We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children,” Carrier said.

But let’s not be too hasty. If these kids are doing well, maybe we shouldn’t care if they get their lessons from DVDs liberally sprinkled with Bible verses. The problem is that while public schools — and, increasingly, public school teachers — are being held rigidly accountable for their students’ test scores, most voucher schools aren’t. Here’s 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.

And maybe it will. But this has always been the Achilles’ Heel of the voucher movement: its virulent opposition to holding private schools to the same standards as public schools. In some places this means not requiring students to take standardized tests at all, while in other places — like Louisiana — it means requiring the tests but not using them to evaluate how well schools are doing. In other words, they want taxpayer dollars without being accountable to taxpayers.

To the best of my knowledge, research on school choice remains inconclusive. Some studies show benefits from voucher and charter schools, others don’t. Part of the reason for this is that test data on voucher schools just isn’t always available, largely thanks to lawmakers who are afraid of what it might show. So if Mitt Romney plans to adopt vouchers as his main education proposal — and he does — it would be nice to hear a little bit about accountability from him to go along with it. Unfortunately, because the true core of the voucher movement is made up of social conservatives who just want taxpayer help sending their kids to Bible schools and consider “accountability” to be a code word for an assault on religious freedom, he’s not likely to do anything of the sort.

 

By: Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, July 2, 2012

August 10, 2012 Posted by | Education, Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wisconsin Recall Election Threat Prompts State Republicans To Rush Agenda

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP leaders have launched a push to ram several years’ worth of conservative agenda items through the Legislature this spring before recall elections threaten to end the party’s control of state government.

Republicans, in a rapid sequence of votes over the next eight weeks, plan to legalize concealed weapons, deregulate the telephone industry, require voters to show photo identification at the polls, expand school vouchers and undo an early release for prisoners.

Lawmakers may also act again on Walker’s controversial plan stripping public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights.  An earlier version, which led to massive protest demonstrations at the Capitol, has been left in limbo by legal challenges.

“Everything’s been accelerated,” said Republican Rep. Gary Tauchen, who is working on the photo ID bill. “We’ve got a lot of big bills we’re trying to get done.”

The speed-up is the latest move in a tumultuous legislative session that followed last fall’s midterm elections in which Republicans won the governorship and control of both houses of the Legislature. In other states where conservatives won major victories, such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan, the GOP has moved more deliberatively.

Walker got off to a fast start in January, passing a slew of measures before he unveiled a two-year budget designed to plug a $3.6 billion shortfall. That legislation, involving deep cuts to a wide range of programs, was expected to consume months. Other measures were on tap for next year. But a three-week boycott by Democrats in the winter and recall efforts targeting nine legislators have changed the strategy.

“They know there’s a very strong possibility their days of controlling every level of government are numbered,” Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca said. “You’re moving forward huge pieces of legislation that dramatically change the direction and traditions and values of this state. Generally, doing that takes much longer.”

Recall campaigns likely will force six Republican senators to defend their seats this summer. Three Democrats may also be on recall ballots. A net victory of three seats would give the Democrats control of the Senate, which the GOP now controls 19-14. The first elections are scheduled for July 12.

At least publicly, Wisconsin Republicans deny they’re rushing legislation for fear of losing their majority.

“Right now, I don’t foresee (losing the majority),” Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, I’m sure it will be in the back of your mind, but you’ll have to see how that plays out later this summer.”

But Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which will attempt to handle two months of budget legislation in half the usual time, acknowledged, “It’s a factor. For the budget, yeah, I want to get it done by June 30.”

Four of the 12 Republicans on the committee are targets of the recall.

The blitz has created an almost frantic atmosphere in the Capitol.

Major bills, like the one to legalize concealed weapons, were introduced just days before public hearings. A major revision to the photo ID proposal was released late on a Friday afternoon, just four days before a committee passed it, prompting complaints from the nonpartisan board that oversees elections.

“There has been no time for the careful evaluation and vetting needed to ensure the best options for voters and election officials is enacted,” wrote Kevin Kennedy, head of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board.

Republican leaders scheduled a full Assembly vote on a bill deregulating the telecommunications industry only a week after a hearing, leaving little opportunity for public comment.

Walker said his plan to move his agenda is unchanged.  “From our standpoint, it’s really been about being aggressive from the beginning,” he said in an interview.

At the same time lawmakers are pushing through conservative policies, they will be wrestling with Walker’s budget proposal. Walker wants to cut roughly $1 billion from schools and local governments, split the Madison campus from the University of Wisconsin System and slow the growth of Medicaid by $500 million.

The Legislature also may try to quickly pass a redistricting plan, a politically charged process that would reshape congressional and legislative districts with new 2010 census data.

If the Legislature votes again on Walker’s plan stripping public workers of their union negotiating rights, it can sidestep the legal challenges to the first vote, which came after 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois to deprive the Senate of a quorum. Unions and Democrats claim the original vote violated the open meetings law and the state constitution’s quorum requirement. The case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he and other leaders are just trying to make up the time lost during the earlier turmoil. “There is an expectation that some of these bills would be completed early on,” he said.

By: Scott Bauer, Huffington Post, May 7, 2011

May 8, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Conservatives, Democracy, Economy, Education, Elections, Gov Scott Walker, Government, Ideologues, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Middle Class, Politics, Public Employees, State Legislatures, States, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Republicans | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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