Transferring public resources to private hands is a major component of the conservative agenda. An extensive profile of the push to weaken public schools and transfer wealth to private academies through tax credit programs is the subject of an extensive profile in today’s New York Times, which highlights how conservative legislators, school privatization advocates and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council are helping secure tax dollars to bolster private school systems. Disguised as programs to help needy children gain access quality education, in reality these programs simply channel money to individuals who don’t need the assistance and boost profits for private schools, often at great cost to students and communities.
Across the country, state legislatures are adopting tax credit programs, which allow individuals and corporations to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax refund for donations to private school “scholarship funds.” In Georgia, for example, a couple can donate up to $2,500 to a nonprofit scholarship fund to be used to send a needy child to a private school. In turn, the donors can subtract their donation from their Georgia tax bill. But according to school administrators, needy children hardly benefit from the practice, with the majority of the funding benefitting children that already attend private schools:
“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”
The result is a system in which gives selected students a taxpayer-funded education at a private school. Around the country, the Times notes, similar programs have redirected nearly $350 million from public budgets. This “tuition” money may go to the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups or even to recruit star athletes – only a small portion goes to needy kids. Politics pervades the entire process, and it is glaringly evident that tax credit programs are more about making money than educating children:
Some of the programs have also become enmeshed in politics, including in Pennsylvania, where more than 200 organizations distribute more than $40 million a year donated by corporations. Two of the state’s largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews. The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.
Organizations such as ALEC have been instrumental in spreading such programs around the country:
“ALEC is a huge player in pushing forward a conservative agenda based on the premise that the free market and private sectors address social problems better than the government,” said Julie Underwood, dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has been critical of ALEC’s education agenda.
ALEC promotes a “Family Education Tax Credit Program” similar to the program adopted in Georgia. The organization promotes a number of other methods of transferring public education dollars to private hands. In addition to numerous voucher and scholarship programs, ALEC promotes its “Education Accountability Act,” which allows a state to override the elected school board and declare schools to be “educationally bankrupt” and divert funds to private schools. Perhaps the boldest plan is the “Virtual Public Schools Act,” which permits online education companies to receive the same per-pupil funding as a brick-and mortar school providing classrooms, athletic facilities, lunch and transportation services.
Politics also makes its way into the classroom. Because the tax credit system allows the money to stay in private accounts – from donors to scholarship funds to schools – the effect is a loophole that creates a legal fiction that they are not being supported with government funds. So state governments are funneling taxpayer money to religious education and political indoctrination of children, insulated from court review. Republican Arizona Representative Trent Franks, who is credited with the idea to insulate private schools from court challenges for constitutional violations this way, bragged that the teachers’ union called the scheme “fiendishly clever.” As a result, the public is forced to foot the bill for a curriculum that would be unacceptable for a public school:
Frances Paterson, a professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia who has studied the books, said they “frequently resemble partisan, political literature more than they do the traditional textbooks used in public schools.”
Mr. Arnold, the headmaster of the Covenant Christian Academy in Cumming, Ga., confirmed that his school used those texts but said they were part of a larger curriculum.
“You have to keep in mind that the curriculum goes beyond the textbook,” Mr. Arnold said. “Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies.”
ALEC, corporate lobbyists and conservative activists are pulling the rug out from beneath American kids and communities. Tax credit programs, vouchers and other “scholarships” are being used to promote profits and politics above education. All children deserve access to a quality education – instead of taking money out of public schools, we should make sure they work for everyone.
The quality of education is a serious problem facing our nation, and it’s clear that the best solution is high quality public schools, not unaccountable voucher schemes that drain money away from our public education system. Next time someone assures you that private schools are so much better than public schools, you might want to point them towards the InterAmerican Christian Academy, which allowed a Florida man to “earn” a high-school diploma in just 8 days and for only $400.
It began with a poster on a streetlight in downtown Miami: “High School Diploma. (305) 716-0909.” I dialed, and a chipper female voice answered, “Hello. High school.” Eight days and $399 in cash later, at the school’s Doral “campus” — a cramped third-floor office next door to US Lubricant LLC and across the hall from a hair extensions company — I was grinning widely, accepting a framed diploma and an official transcript sporting a 3.41 GPA.
This is the same state in which the Governor, Rick Scott, is looking to substantially expand “school choice” programs. Sounds like a great use of taxpayer dollars…
Read the full story at Thinkprogress.org
An organization that backs private school vouchers is campaigning against the recall of the eight Republican Wisconsin senators who backed Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation. The so-called American Federation for Children (AFC) is an ardent supporter of the voucher scheme in Milwaukee, the unsuccessful voucher program which Walker and his GOP allies want to export to other parts of the state as part of bolstering the Republicans’ attacks on public schools and teachers.
Listen to their robocall defending GOP Senator Sheila Harsdorf:
At the same time that Walker and the Republicans proposed a massive $834 million cut to public schools, endangering the state’s esteemed public education system, they seek to spend more taxpayer money on a wasteful voucher program that has been unable to improve the education of Milwaukee students. A comprehensive study in 2009 found “no overall statistically significant difference between [voucher school] and [public school] student achievement growth in either math or reading one year after they were carefully matched to each other,” and that fourth graders in the voucher program were actually performing worse than comparable public school students.
While the private school voucher scheme did nothing to improve education, it did funnel taxpayer dollars to religious schools: of the 120 schools receiving vouchers examined in the study, 95 were religious and 7 operate within a religious tradition.
Renowned education scholar Diane Ravitch, once a proponent of the so-called “school choice” movement, told OnMilwaukee.com that the voucher program “has not worked”:
Milwaukee is indeed the nation's laboratory for assessing the value of school choice. The advocates of school choice predicted that academic performance in choice schools would not only soar, but that the competitive pressure would cause achievement in the regular district schools to improve. None of this has happened. The latest studies show that students in voucher schools and in charter schools do not perform any differently from those in the regular public schools.
"Reformers" in Milwaukee have been pursuing strategies that we now know are ineffective. The more time and resources devoted to ineffective strategies, the less attention there is to finding useful improvements. Choice got the support of foundations and business leaders, but it has not worked.
Even the state schools superintendent Tom Evers agreed that “choice schools have proven to be no more effective and in some cases less effective than Milwaukee Public Schools.”
But organizations like the AFC ignore and dismiss the clear findings that the Milwaukee voucher program is a wrongheaded and ill-designed effort to improve education, and instead want to expand the program to more school districts and tear down the public education system. Now, they want to make sure that Republican legislators keep their jobs and continue to support vouchers and bust unions representing public school teachers.
Suhail A. Khan, who served as a liaison to faith communities in George W. Bush’s White House, writes this week in Foreign Policy that he finds himself increasingly alone as a Muslim Republican. Many American Muslims have conservative values, Khan writes, but the GOP won’t win their support “until the party finds leadership willing to stop playing to the worst instincts of its minority of bigoted supporters”:
In recent weeks, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other prominent Republicans have loudly voiced their opposition to the proposed Cordoba House project near ground zero in lower Manhattan, fanning the flames of a protest that has since spread into a more generalized criticism of Muslim institutions in the United States. But even before this month's controversy, the exodus of Muslim Americans from the Republican Party was nearly complete. In 2008, this country's more than 7 million Muslims voted in record numbers, and nearly 90 percent of their votes went to Obama.
It wasn't always this way. Muslim Americans are, by and large, both socially and economically conservative. Sixty-one percent of them would ban abortion except to save the life of the mother; 84 percent support school choice. Muslims overwhelmingly support traditional marriage. More than a quarter -- over twice the national average -- are self-employed small-business owners, and most support reducing taxes and the abolition of the estate tax. By all rights they should be Republicans -- and not long ago they were. American Muslims voted two to one for George H.W. Bush in 1992. While they went for Bill Clinton by the same margin in 1996, they were brought back into the Republican fold in 2000 by George W. Bush.
Kahn compares the GOP’s current alienation of Muslim Americans to the party’s history with Hispanics. George W. Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004; in 2008, with the GOP ramping up its anti-immigrant rhetoric, only 31% of Hispanics voted for John McCain.
In the Washington Post today, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson writes of what are likely to be the far-reaching unintended consequences of the GOP’s embrace of the Tea Party’s more nativist and xenophobic strands:
[A] question of Tea Party candidates: Do you believe that American identity is undermined by immigration? An internal debate has broken out on this issue among Tea Party favorites. Tom Tancredo, running for Colorado governor, raises the prospect of bombing Mecca, urges the president to return to his Kenyan "homeland" and calls Miami a "Third World country" -- managing to offend people on four continents. Dick Armey of FreedomWorks appropriately criticizes Tancredo's "harsh and uncharitable and mean-spirited attitude on the immigration issue." But the extremes of the movement, during recent debates on birthright citizenship and the Manhattan mosque, seem intent on depicting Hispanics and Muslims as a fifth column.
There is no method more likely to create ethnic resentment and separatism than unfair suspicion. The nativist impulse is the enemy of assimilation. In a nation where minorities now comprise two-fifths of children under 18, Republicans should also understand that tolerating nativism would bring slow political asphyxiation.
The Tea Party is undoubtedly on a bit of a roll. Last night, Sarah Palin-endorsed Tea Party candidates won (or look likely to win) Republican primaries in Alaska, Arizona, and Florida as did John McCain, who compromised many of his famed “maverick” positions to compete with a far right-wing challenger. And extreme right-wingers Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Rand Paul have already grasped their party’s nominations after campaigns tinged with racially divisive rhetoric.
The Tea Party movement is not all about the politics of fear and exclusion—but to the extent that it is, it may face a limited, if dangerous, shelf life. For many on the far Right, short-term political expedience trumps doing what is right; but doing what is wrong may have long-term political consequences.